The other sort of hacking: Baltimore’s ghost taxis

Baltimore taxisDovetailing neatly with yesterday’s article about innovative low-budget urban living in Detroit comes a piece on Baltimore’s “hacks”- illegal and unlicensed taxi services provided by anyone with a car to anyone in need of a budget ride across town [via MetaFilter; image by Marcin Wichary].

… a booming economy built around people in Baltimore’s African-American community who prefer to call or flag down drivers like Doug to taking public transportation or licensed taxicabs. There are no statistics on hacking, no academic studies. Yet, as anyone who travels city streets and encounters the finger-wagging hack hail knows, it is a pervasive part of life here.

It is also a somewhat controversial part. Hacking is illegal, a misdemeanor punishable by a fine of up to $500 and up to six months in jail. And it has a reputation as a dangerous practice, for both riders and drivers. Although Baltimore Police Department spokesman Officer Troy Harris says that police records “don’t have a category for occupations of homicide victims,” accounts published in The Sun indicate that over the past decade as many as 13 Baltimoreans have been killed while driving hacks. And since hacking itself is illegal, many lesser crimes that might occur in the process–carjackings, robberies, assaults–likely go unreported.

Why has this dangerous and illegal activity become such a part of Baltimore culture? Most reasons given by those contacted for this story can be summed up in three words–convenience, money, and race.

It’s a long article, but worth the read – y’know, the sort of journalism they keep telling us that the internet will kill off. Hacking sounds a lot like the ‘van’ system found in Latin American cities, a grey market that grows around the demand for public transport infrastructure among those living on the margins of society, whether geographically or politically. From the sound of it, hacking in Baltimore is too ubiquitous to be effectively shut down by the authorities without a vast expense of time and money, and its close connection to the African-American demographic means that to do so would probably amplify the problems of discrimination that hacking circumvents. The article points out that the city authorities have too much on their plates with other more serious crimes to spend time on a hacker crack-down (arf!), but one can’t help but wonder if there’s an element of turning the blind eye in that attitude – after all, any street-level economic activity that’s been running for a few decades is evidently driven by genuine need, and producing an official fix for the problem is going to be much harder work than trying quietly to contain it.

What fascinates me about stories like this are the way they tear off the veneer of “respectable”corporate capitalist economics to reveal illicit person-to-person transactions running in much the same way as they must have done since the dawn of commerce itself. I know it’s not fashionable to talk positively about the power of the marketplace right now, but you can’t deny the tenacity with which people will find a way to make a fast buck from the absence of a certain service or product. The question is, how much of the crime associated with hacking would be prevented if the authorities took a more laissez faire attitude and deregulated the business, allowing hacks to compete directly on price and safety with ‘legitimate’ taxis? This strikes me as the sort of small economic ecosystem that could thrive with the introduction of a reputation currency.

4 thoughts on “The other sort of hacking: Baltimore’s ghost taxis”

  1. Hacks are all over. Pittsburgh has a ton, as the city artificially limits the number of cabs. A hack is better than driving home drunk (which the city almost forces people to do). It’s nice to live in a city with a ton of cabs (DC).

  2. I think this whole “hacking” thing in the US started first in New York in the late 60’s and 70’s. During this period the medallioned or yellow cabs in the city were refusing to take people “dangerous” – read black or Hispanic – neighborhoods. So called “gypsy” cabs started to arise which would carry people to and from these neighborhoods.

    The NYC taxi policy is one of the more bizarre government efforts in the country. The number of medallion cabs has been little changed since the 1930’s. In response to the gypsy cab phenomenon, the Taxi and Limousine Commission created some new categories. I’ll leave to to the readers to research that arcane literature.

    The phenomenon of hacks has probably existed since the first urban wheeled vehicles developed.

  3. Well I feel as though “Hacks” are very much affordable not just for african americans but for anybody looking for an affordable ride to their destination but a taxi can be just as dangerous as a hack , yes its legal and the driver is licensed to do that but what makes that better your still getting in a strange car with a person you know nothing about only difference is all taxi’s say ” TAXI “

  4. I lived in Baltimore for over a year. I’m a lower middle class white guy with a college degree from the University of Bawlmer, and while it’s true that the majority of drivers and fares in the underworld of illegal hacks are black folks, I’ve taken a hack in the past home from a night out drinking with friends in Fells Point as not to risk a DUI, and I once picked up an older gentleman who was trying to catch a hack on Greenmount Avenue (I was coming home at the time and could have used a few extra bucks). My point is that race is NOT.the determining factor in consideration of hacking — it’s practiced by most Baltimoreans who can’t afford a $20/30 cab fare home regardless of colour — although as the city ia majority black, most drivers and customers are naturally black themselves. Bur hacking itself generally takes place without consideration of race

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