Why Is It So Hard to Get a Cab in This Town?

A longtime taxi driver tells all.

In my taxicab last summer, I picked up Bill Hogan, the personable executive athletic director of the University of San Francisco. He was not, however, at his all-time best. A few weeks earlier, Hogan and his wife had watched their 19-year-old daughter head off to Washington, D.C., for a summer internship on Capitol Hill. In her absence, the days had ticked past slowly. Hogan's wife was the first to blink; after five weeks, she jumped on a plane and flew east. A few days later, Hogan cleared his own schedule and called the airlines. On the day of his flight, he phoned the city's biggest cab company and placed an advance order for 7:30 p.m. At the appointed time, he placed his luggage on the curb in front of his house, near USF, and waited.

Around 8:10, when I rolled into view, Hogan was easy to spot. Not only was he the only person in sight, but he was waving his garment bag and stamping his feet. He vaulted into my cab, clearly aghast: "SFO-in a hurry! I've got a 9 o'clock flight!"

As we sped down Golden Gate Avenue toward Masonic, I said, "The freeway was clear half an hour ago. I think we'll make it."

"I hope so," Hogan snorted. And then he popped the question that makes every veteran cab driver cringe (I've been cringing since 1985): "Why is it so impossible to get a cab in this town?"

"Do you really want to know?" I asked him.

"Yes I do!"

The answer, I've discovered, always surprises people who take taxis in San Francisco. It goes like this: It doesn't make any difference-not one penny-to a cab company's bottom line whether you or anyone else gets a cab or not. Cab companies make their money by renting cabs to drivers. At the end of each ten-hour shift, we owe them the same amount of money whether we picked up 100 people or no one at all. They offer us no incentive to pick you up at your desired time.

In fact, no cab company ever tells a driver to pick up anyone. When you phone a cab firm in San Francisco, your call is treated not as an order, not as a binding oral contract, but simply as a request. The time you say you'd like to be picked up is passed along to all of that company's drivers, but from then on…well, no one's at the wheel. No law say the company has to get a cab to you; nothing in my job description or on my permit says I have to pick you up. The motivation to respond to a call for a pickup comes solely from drivers, and many feel they can make more money by sticking to the fares who flag us down in the street. For instance, if I hadn't dropped off someone several blocks from USF and hadn't noticed Hogan's order on my computer screen, or if I had been more anxious to get back downtown, he would still be standing on Golden Gate Avenue.

So, why don't cab companies ensure that we pick you up on time-or at all? In a nutshell, labor law states that if a cab company actually commands a driver to carry out a specific action, that constitutes an employer-employee relationship. But if a company farms its work out to independent contractors, it can rid itself of costly expenses such as disability and social security taxes. It also means that the contractor drivers can't unionize.

The employee-independent contractor controversy has simmered for years. Personally, I don't think that ordering cab companies to have employees is the solution. For one thing, the industry is full of legendarily untamable spirits, people who are innately incapable of dealing with time cards and bosses. The city's taxi laws-which determine how many cabs can roam the streets and thus the number of permits issued-even seem to acknowledge the industry's independent nature.

Before 1978, cab companies themselves could attain the coveted permits. But that year, then-San Francisco supervisor Quentin Kopp (now a San Mateo County Superior Court judge) authored Proposition K in response to a perception of unfairness and corruption in the industry. Speculators had been bidding up the price of permits, and individual drivers were seen as getting a raw deal. Now permits are awarded only to individuals, most of whom rent taxis from established companies for gate fees that average $83.50 per shift.

On the surface, this arrangement-unique to San Francisco-might seem beneficial to both companies and drivers: The companies don't have to worry about huge employee overhead, and the drivers get to remain independent. In general, we get to choose our hours and share in the profits. But no one on the street side is getting rich: a full-time driver makes an average of $20,000 to $30,000 a year.

Cab companies, on the other hand, can do very well indeed. The United Taxicab Workers (UTW), a coalition battling to improve driver conditions, has attained confidential financial statements from one of San Francisco's largest cab firms; it discovered that the company earned a 50 percent profit in gross revenues of nearly $19 million.

So if both drivers and companies have what they want, what's the problem? It depends, of course, on whom you ask. Nathan Dwiri, president and general manager of Yellow Cab, says the reason it's often hard for people to get a taxi in San Francisco is that the companies "have been too successful. We've been so good at delivering a service that demand has gone way beyond supply." When pressed, Dwiri, who began driving a taxicab himself in 1965, even says that those behind the wheel today have it too good. "The demand is so incredible that drivers don't hustle," he says. "There are obviously some great drivers who do very well, because they have a lot of energy. But some are just deadweight."

Ultimately, Dwiri says-echoing what has been the cab companies' hard line since the '70s and what was the core of last month's Proposition M-the city needs to issue more permits. I will be on my best behavior and ignore Nate's comment about lazy drivers. But I do have to say that simply issuing more permits is not the solution. If it were, the flood of new permits seen in recent years (in 1993 there were 861 cabs; today there are nearly 1,400-an increase of more than 60 percent) would have solved all the problems.

What the industry really needs is a centralized dispatch system. Currently, you are limited to calling for a ride through a single company at a time. For example, if you call Yellow, which is the city's biggest cab company, your request reaches only 400 drivers. If you call another place, your odds are even lower. Instead of worrying about how many cabs to add to the streets, we should worry about effectively using those we do have. A centralized dispatch system would send your request out to every cab in the city.

Centralized dispatch is not a new idea. In 1995, the UTW backed a proposition to institute it, but the prop failed. According to Mark Gruberg of the UTW, the taxi companies poured more than $400,000 into a campaign to defeat the measure. "They saw it as an attack on their ability to compete," Gruberg says. "But they always oppose anything that smacks of change."

But even more basic to the solution is the need for accountability to you, the users-plus the need for much better communication between companies and drivers. My pet peeve with the industry has always been that no one in management at the cab companies seems to care or understand that they must-unless they want to kill the golden goose for all of us-take care of you folks. At the very least, there should be a handful of drivers standing by to pick up "problem orders"-such as people who call back a company because a cab is late. In fact, all my fellow drivers and I need to be willing to be steered toward problem orders several times a shift.

But, of course, I'm not the cab czar, just one of the drivers hustling to gross up to $30 an hour. And in pursuit of Hogan's flight I was, perhaps, telling him a lot more than he'd bargained to hear. But as we flew around Hospital Curve, with Candlestick lurking ahead, I could tell that Hogan had relaxed.

"Last year," I told him, "I picked up a woman in labor who had three contractions in 12 minutes in my cab. We made it to the emergency room just in time. Her husband told me they'd been calling for over an hour. You had to wait only 40 minutes."

He laughed. We talked sports and families the rest of the way to the airport. By the time we arrived at 8:27, it was clear that he would catch his flight. As he got out, Hogan left me one fat tip and then another: "If you ever want to go to a USF game," he said, "just give me a call. Anytime. I'll set you up."

I drove back to town thinking how great it would be if someday, in the city that supposedly knows how, getting a taxi could be just as simple.

Brad Newsham has been a San Francisco cab driver since 1985. His travel memoir, "Take Me with You: A Round-the-World Journey to Invite a Stranger Home," was recently published by Travelers' Tales.

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