Move over, Travis Bickle. A city’s cab driver is actually a brand ambassador.

In the classic Martin Scorsese film Taxi Driver, the main character Travis Bickle, played by Robert De Niro, refers to himself as “God’s Lonely Man.” This description is decidedly apropos as he embodies the modern isolation of a city imploding. Bickle shifts from a loner sociopath to ironic vigilante hero while we watch him navigate through the city. Bickle muses, “someday a real rain will come and wash the scum off the streets.”

This story arc may serve as a back drop for a potential shift to “wash away” the stereotypes about cab drivers and explore new ways they may represent their cities.

Recently, techno marketer Matt Dickman gave a social media presentation in Sun Valley at the Idaho Conference on Recreation and Tourism. He made an observation that Boise city’s cab drivers are the frontline in setting the tone of whether the city is not only a good place to visit, but a good place to call home. Unfortunately, Matt’s experience wasn’t so positive as his cab driver lamented Boise’s growth and California ex-patriots who have put down roots in the Boise valley.

While Matt’s experience after this was much more rewarding, it was still the disgruntled-cab-driver introduction to the city that he remembered. It’s interesting that a cab driver, whose very livelihood depends on a city and its culture and tourism, would defame the source of his living.

In contrast, I had the much different welcome to Boise as I recently returned from a weekend workshop on Science and Meditation at the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The late Sunday evening flight demanded that I grab a cab.

My Boise City Cab driver (whose name I can’t remember), related to me that he used to be a Truck Driver and recently made the switch to driving cab after the birth of his daughter. Being a truck driver gave him only two days a month at home and he didn’t feel that this was the relationship he wanted with his daughter.

The truck driving experience also gave him an idea of what life would be for his family and him when living in any of the 40-plus states that he passed through. He chose Boise as his home. “Boise is the kind of place that you can feel safe walking home at three in the morning,” he told me. “At the same time, Boise is also the kind of place that you would have a good reason to be out at three in the morning.” He elaborated that the city is a fun place and at the same time, a neighborly place.

I think this is an accurate take on Boise. Having just moved to Boise myself three years ago, I can relate to this cab driver. Boise has got that perfect blend of comfort and activity. It’s a thriving community whose downtown is swaddled by a river with miles of parks and foothills with endless trails to explore. You see this when the weather gets warm and Boise comes to life with cyclists on bikes of all shapes and sizes. The nightlife also starts thumping, and the downtown streets remind you of the hipper districts of bigger cities. There’s a lot to do and you feel safe and comfortable doing it.

This brings to mind an opportunity that Matt Dickman noted: a city should do more with cab drivers to give them the tools to properly present their city to tourists and most importantly, business travelers. There is great potential in having cab drivers understand everything the city has to offer and, at the same time, speak freely about their hometown.

Highlighting this opportunity is the current dilemma in the Boise cab industry with so many privately-owned cab companies. An article in the May 21, 2008 issue of Boise Weekly stated that there were 150 different licensed cab companies in Boise. At that time, this was more cabs per capita than Seattle or Portland. My Boise City cab driver related to me that there maybe much more cabs on the road this year.

Don’t get me wrong. I love taxis and cab drivers. Maybe this environment is setting itself up for some intense competition, more regulation, and most of all, some innovation. This could be an opportunity for an enterprising Cab company to kick up customer service and evolve their driver or drivers into brand ambassadors for Boise and Idaho.

It’s not about making cab drivers into one-dimensional pitchmen, but insiders who give the local take on the great things to do here. Then, maybe the industry can evolve from providing mere transportation to supporting and championing a growing city.

— Sean D. Young

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Dylan Amundson
Dylan Amundson
June 9, 2009