Driving in a cab driver’s seat for a hundred miles

Apparently the writers of an editorial in the San Francisco Chronicle feel taxi riders are getting a raw deal in a recently approved fare increase, the first in about seven years, even with sky-high gasoline costs, because cabs are still so hard to get.[1] These complaints are nothing new. But just as those who criticize others should “try walking a mile in the other guy’s shoes,” the publishers of the Chronicle should try driving a hundred miles in a cab driver’s seat.

It’s been over ten years since I last drove cab in San Francisco, during the dot-com boom, when the South of Market Area was a high tech Mecca. Even then, the last really good times for the economy, I found “the difficulty of making a living driving a cab in San Francisco”[2] to be very, very real. And one reason I am not driving cab now is that if I found it so difficult then, I am sure it would be impossible now.

This is hard to understand from a taxi passenger’s perspective. I remember an exotic dancer I had picked up informing me that if she were to drive cab, she’d make hundreds of dollars per night. I was too polite to ask how.

There actually is some resemblance between the strip club business and the taxi business. Dancers and cab drivers are both usually considered “independent contractors.” They pay to work, and they pay whether there is any business, whether they make any money or not. This arrangement leaves taxi cab companies and strip clubs in the business of marketing facilities—a stage and private rooms for the dancers; vehicles, insurance, and dispatch services for drivers—and shifts the risks of day-to-day ups and downs of business onto the vulnerable members of society who are certainly unlikely to have grown up aspiring to be cab drivers or exotic dancers and who are much more likely to work in these positions because they, like me, can’t find more traditional employment with better security.

It is an arrangement that aligns well with recent ideology in the United States that ideally, everyone is an independent business person, whether or not they have talents in business and marketing, whether or not they can afford the risks. For me, it was a daily experience of sheer financial terror. And among the risks are that cab companies and strip clubs whose interests lie in leasing vehicles or stage slots will lease so many that the market will be flooded.

The other side of a putative shortage of cabs is a memory I’ll never forget, driving down 17th Street between Clayton and the Castro. The terrain there makes it uncommonly possible to see traffic well ahead as well as behind. And I remember seeing a lot of cabs, both ahead of me and behind me, all of us presumably empty. It was a common occurrance, so much so that I often found myself turning the cab in early just to save what was left of my sanity from the intense frustration of being out there, burning gas in a big Ford Crown-Victoria in a manifestly fruitless search for fares.

Cab companies lease cabs in ten-hour shifts. Again, my memory is hazy, but as I recall, at the time I quit, I was paying anywhere from $70-something to $100-something for each of those shifts, depending on the day of the week. Plus, I had to buy gas and tip dispatchers. Drivers who sat in hotel lines had to tip doormen. I’ll emphasize this again: I owed that money whether I made any or not.

Since there are twenty-four hours in a day, that means that each cab is (ideally) out for two shifts. The shifts are staggered, so the first shifts in the morning will typically start around 3 a.m. (there are very few of these) and run until 1 p.m., with the p.m. shift for that cab beginning promptly at that time, which is another cost: the bigger companies require incoming drivers to at least top off the gas tanks in their cabs at the end of their shifts, in part to ensure that the subsequent driver of that cab begins with a full tank and in part to provide companies with yet another revenue stream; gas lines can be very long and a driver should allow at least a half hour at the end of his (or, much more rarely, her) shift to satisfy the company that the gas tank is as full as it can be.

Cab shifts are typically staggered hourly. So some shifts will run from 4 a.m. to 2 p.m., and so on. The last shifts of the day typically begin at 6 p.m., and run to 4 a.m. One of the reasons people experience difficulty finding cabs in the late afternoon and early evening is that shift change effectively puts each cab out of service for well over an hour, while the driver ending his shift returns to the yard (in San Francisco, cab companies are nearly all located in the neighborhood directly south of Potrero Hill and east of Highway 101), buys gas, and parks, and while the oncoming driver searches for the cab, maybe washes it, and returns it to areas where demand for cabs is at a peak.

Inexperienced drivers, including yours truly, got the worst shifts. As an evening driver, I was assigned a 6 p.m. shift; this was mitigated a bit as my day driver, the “owner” (meaning he held the medallion, the permit the city issues to allow a cab to operate), usually turned in around 5 p.m. Even so, with rush hour traffic, it would be nearly 6 p.m. before I could get to downtown. If I was fortunate, I might, in the following two hours, make my “gate and gas,” the money I needed to pay for the shift and for gas. That was crucial, because business dropped off dramatically after 8 p.m. And whatever money I made after 8 p.m. was pretty much the money I’d go home with. It was at this time that I would follow a route, covering the Financial District, Union Square, Market Street, the lower and upper Haight Street areas, and the Castro, looking for fares. On most nights, I drove a little over a hundred miles, in city traffic, both with fares and while looking for them.

As for “bar rush,” forget about it. I would typically get one short fare in the time between 1:30 a.m. and 2:00 a.m., certainly nothing worth staying out for.

Morning shifts rely heavily on people going to the airport. These trips begin typically around 4:00 a.m. But in San Francisco, at that time, an airport trip was only worth around twenty to thirty dollars; it would be higher now, because fares have increased, but I don’t know how much. Most drivers who go to the airport stay there, waiting for a return trip; this limits the number of cabs available for morning rush hour. Most trips during the day are even shorter than most trips at night; these consist largely of ferrying the elderly to and from hair salons and grocery stores.

The length of each trip is important to drivers because they don’t know how long it will be until they get the next fare, so each fare needs to count. That makes “no-gos,” calls which drivers answer only to find that passengers have either already left or were never there in the first place, very expensive, in terms of gasoline expended to get to them, in terms of time expended getting to them, and in terms of mental health. The proportion of “no-gos” in San Francisco is ridiculously high; passengers expect drivers to dishonorably pick up the first fare they see, and drivers usually do, whether or not they’ve accepted a call, because the risk of a “no go” is so high. So having called a cab, a great many passengers will promptly go to the nearest corner and flag down the first cab they see.

But once I answered a call in the Bayview district. It turned out to be the San Francisco Taxi Detail, a unit of the police department, seeing if I’d actually show up. I did. And I would have been in serious trouble if I hadn’t. But for my trouble getting to this far out of the way order, they paid me a mere five dollars.

After bouncing out of the dot-com boom, I returned to the San Francisco taxi business as a call-taker, working in the dispatch office, taking phone orders for cabs. It was my only half-facetious conclusion then that customers don’t call for cabs because they want cabs and drivers don’t accept orders because they want fares.

There are several things which could and should be done to improve cab service in San Francisco:

  1. Cab company vehicle leasing services should be separate from dispatch operations. Drivers currently have to purchase these services in a single package, so they are entirely at the mercy of companies who have no particular interest in providing well-maintained cabs or in screening orders to improve their reliability for drivers who often would travel considerable distances to pick them up. The latter function is discouraged by regulation, which insists that all orders should be filled even when callers have a history of “no-gos” or other abuses. Drivers provide mediocre service because companies compete to provide only mild variations in mediocrity to drivers.

  2. Dispatch services should be centralized into a single operation. Drivers and companies both object to this, citing both ideological reasons (i.e. “competition”) and customers who are supposedly loyal to their companies (but who too often call multiple companies, causing more than one cab to be sent), but in fact, there are good and bad drivers, and good and bad dispatchers at all companies. And no commercial ground transportation operation invests any more than the bare minimum they can get away with in maintenance. It is a frequent occurrence that one company may have an unfilled order in an area where another company has an empty cab. The present utilization of cabs in the city is extremely inefficient and is a disservice to drivers and passengers alike.

  3. Cab companies should cease to exist, at least as leasing operations. In their present form, they represent the worst excesses in capitalism, exploiting individuals they see as infinitely replaceable at the most desperate strata of society. If cab drivers must be independent contractors in a capitalist system, they should own their cabs and climb regulatory hurdles as individuals. Financing should be available for those who want to purchase cabs, much like it is available for students to pay for their educations. And if the risk of this is considered excessive, then the reasons for that need to be explored and addressed, rather than—as in the present system—simply obscured by passing them off onto people who are among the most vulnerable members of society.

  4. The number of medallions, the permits required to operate cabs, needs to be gradually reduced. The city has attempted a policy of increasing the number of medallions for, as far as I am aware, nearly two decades, multiplying the number of cabs on the road by several times. This policy has not improved service but rather left drivers increasingly destitute as cab companies have been required to at least attempt to put a cab on the road for every medallion nearly continuously. The present arrangement, it should be noted, has aligned with company interests (and their lobbying efforts), since they make their money based on how many cabs they can put out on the road, regardless of any other factors. It should be no surprise that exploited humans provide lousy service and policy should be aligned to ensure that all humans—especially including cab drivers—are treated as valuable members of society.

  5. Employers who insist that their work forces must show up in person in high-density areas, e.g. downtown and the Financial District, for work during peak times should be assessed an additional tax to pay for the infrastructure, including cab service, needed to support their demands. This cost should be sufficient to pay for improved traffic flows—the amount of money I lost in gridlock was simply unconscionable—and better mass transportation as well as to subsidize additional cab service during those peak times. Drivers who choose to work part time (perhaps because a ten-hour shift has become too long for them) could fill in to satisfy this demand.

Better still, we could recognize that the cab business is exemplary in demonstrating how capitalism sucks, that money as the measure of all things leads to environmental and social ruin, and that our social arrangements need to be radically overhauled if we are to survive. But of course, asking that we as a species should actually plan to survive is completely unreasonable.

  1. [1]San Francisco Chronicle, “Riders get nothing for S.F. taxi fare hike,” SFGate.com, May 19, 2011, http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/05/19/EDQ31JHPOU.DTL
  2. [2]Michael Cabanatuan, “S.F. taxi drivers protest credit card fees,” SFGate.com, May 4, 2011, http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2011/05/04/BA1B1JBGR8.DTL

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