Broken: the taxi system in SF

While San Francisco may have a far-reaching system of buses and streetcars, another component of its public transit system, the taxicabs, has been broken for a long time. As the city’s Taxi Commission considers adding 100 cabs to the system, it’s a good time to say just how messed up the system is.

San Francisco likes to depict itself as a world city. Well, I’ve been to plenty of world capitals — Tokyo, Buenos Aires, Hong Kong, Paris, London, New York. In most of those cities, taxis are ubiquitous throughout the downtown area, and easy to call to your house in a neighborhood on the phone. For the most part, the drivers know where they’re going.

San Francisco? Good luck on a rainy day… or when there’s a really big convention in town, like Mac World… or if you live west of Van Ness or south of Cesar Chavez… or, frankly, most of the time.

Not a cab in sight: at the busy corner of 17th and De Haro at 8:30 a.m. this morning, there wasn’t a cab in sight, despite this being the intersection of two thoroughfares — one which is a common route over Potereo Hill, the other a cross-town route between the foot of Potrero Hill and the Mission District.

My wife or I have spent endless minutes on hold to talk to rude telephone dispatchers, and then waited 30 to 50 minutes after the cab was supposed to be here, before giving up. We’ve called every cab company in town to find one that’s responsive — useless. When we’re lucky enough to get a cab, we’ve had to plead with the drivers not to speed at 50 m.p.h. up narrow residential streets.

And it’s not just in the neighborhoods. The other day, during our rainy spell, a local TV news broadcast showed a doorman at a large downtown hotel whistling hopelessly for a cab in the driving rain. It took more than five minutes for just one taxi to show up.

I know it’s not all the fault of the drivers. The way the system is in San Francisco, the drivers have less choice of making any money than a dancer at an empty strip club. The cab companies soak the drivers for every dime, and the price of gas doesn’t help them either. But the scant opportunity to make money at the job means that many of the people willing to drive cabs are desperate people with few other skills who are easily taken advantage of, because everyone else can get a better job, one that actually pays money.

Now the Taxi Commission, after receiving a report documenting the scandalous state of the city’s cab system, is proposing to raise the number of cabs on the street by a scant 8 percent. That is, in itself, just insult to injury for the city’s cab riders, yet the owners of the cab permits were down at the commission meeting tonight screaming that a few dozen more cabs will mean they’ll go broke.

Here’s an item for Mayor Newsom’s to-do list. Fix this broken system.

To read: an article on Beyond Chron, The Making of a Debit Card Monopoly: How San Francisco’s taxi paratransit program is getting ruined by politics, by former mayoral candidate Matt Gonzalez.

12 Comments so far

  1. adam jackson (unregistered) on February 14th, 2007 @ 10:15 am

    I just attended my fourth macworld and that being my fifth time in the city I agree. it seems like every cab comapny is circling the howard st. area taking people back and forth from union square hotels to Moscone. I took a cab out to Castro and getting back was impossibly and I had to take a subway. There seems to be no cabs at all just outside of downtown while conferences are taking place.

  2. Not Peter Ragone (unregistered) on February 14th, 2007 @ 10:58 am

    Umm….”fixing the taxicab system” was on Mr. Newsom’s to do list for some time. Do recall it was Newsom who, with his then Supervisorial aide Heidi Machen, put the legislation on the ballot to create the Taxi Cab Commission.

    Then, do recall, it was Newsom, who, because he was not paying attention to his job, allowed taxi commissionsers in the pocket of cab companies who were appointed by Willie Brown, to continue to serve because he couldn’t get his act together to appoint people who shared his vision of quality taxi service.

    Need I remind you who his appointments secretary was up until a few months ago? Yeah.

    So the next time you hear someone say his problems didn’t affect his job, just try getting a cab sometime and remember – he said he’d do something but in the middle he dropped the ball and had his mind on other things.

  3. sj (unregistered) on February 14th, 2007 @ 11:26 am

    I dont believe 17th & DeHaro has the density required for cabs to drive around aimlessly looking for pickups. I mean, even the picture you show is low-rise warehouses. If I was a cabby, I wouldnt be down there, I’d much rather be driving around where I’m certain there are people. Its unfortuante, those who chose to live in the “Up-and-coming” parts of town are going to have to live with some pains while their neighborhood gentrifies; It’ll take time, but once there a lot of yuppies in the neighborhood, taxis will follow.

  4. rory b. bellows (unregistered) on February 14th, 2007 @ 11:58 am

    I’m new to the city (less than five months) and when I unfortunately had to take the Greyhound bus to get down to Southern California one morning, I called 411 on my cell phone to get a taxi. After 4 failed attempts (wrong number, wrong number, voicemail and then a fax number) to contact a taxi, I realized I would miss my bus after spending 25 minutes trying to call a cab, so i hopped on the F streetcars with my huge bag of luggage smack in the middle of morning rush hour traffic. It was awful and inconvenient (for myself and others) but I had no choice! I’m still at a loss as to how I A) couldn’t reach any live person at 4 taxi companies and B) couldn’t find one ON MARKET near the Safeway. Needless to say, it didn’t start my trip off right.

    So, PLEASE Mayor Newsome, I beseech you: stop drinking and having affairs and fix this broken taxi system!

  5. bc (unregistered) on February 14th, 2007 @ 8:35 pm

    SJ’s right – 17th and de haro is not a major intersection, and i wouldn’t even classify either street as a major thoroughfare. cabs wouldn’t hang out there.

    the thing is – SF as a whole is NOT as urban as those major world cities like NYC, tokyo, london, paris, etc. while SF is certainly dense and very walkable (compared to most US cities), the city still has a very high rate of car ownership, and let’s be honest, this ain’t a 24-hr city. so naturally, cab service isn’t going to be as extensive or reliable as those world capitals.

  6. Mark (unregistered) on February 14th, 2007 @ 9:39 pm

    Let me explain why I think there should be taxi service at corners like 17th and De Haro.

    First, it is at the intersection of two crosstown routes. Anybody who lived or worked in the neighborhood would agree.

    Second, it is at the intersection of three bus lines, the 22, the 19, and the 10 — it is the terminus of the 10, which takes people downtown.

    Every morning I go to church a block up from there. And I see people walking down Potrero Hill to get on the 10 or the 19 to go downtown. And I see other people come off the freeway and park right around there — which you can, because there’s no residential parking — and take the bus downtown from there.

    Now, anybody who has ever depended on Muni to get to work knows there are times when Muni just downright fails. And when that happens, you need a backup. That’s where the taxis come in. That’s why, if I was a cab driver, I would cruise by intersections like this all the time — to pick up impatient people who can’t stand waiting for their bus any longer.

    Because the whole point is that taxis are a supplement to the public transit system. They’re what you take when the main public transit system is not adequate.

  7. San Francisco Taxicab (unregistered) on February 15th, 2007 @ 2:02 am

    You wrote: “Let me explain why I think there should be taxi service at corners like 17th and DeHaro.” Listen, if there was consistent demand for cabs at 17th and DeHaro there would be cabs there. Cab drivers want to make money. They go where the money is, that should be obvious to even the most naive capitalist. Cab drivers don’t drive around looking for people, they look for money. There is cab service at 17th and DeHaro. You moved into a fringe neighborhood and you receive fringe cab service. 17th and DeHaro is in the middle of nowhere, that’s a choice you made.

    San Francisco has one of the highest per capita rates of vehicle to household ratios in the country. This is California and once you are away from the core of the City, it is mostly single family homes with garages. Potrero Hill included. As a matter of fact Potrero Hill has one of the lowest population densities of any SF neighborhoods.

    It is true that people who use public transit support the cab industry but let’s be real here. The typical cab ride hovers around $10.00. Bus fare is $1.50.

    I’m also tired of hearing comparisons of cab service in NYC and London. I’ve tried catching a “black cab” in London. Out of three tries I rode once in a legitimate cab. Once I caught a “saloon car” and the other I ended up on the “tube”. In NYC, unless you’re in the heart of Manhattan on a nice day, forget it. If the weather is bad, if the congestion is bad you’re going to have to walk. Outside the “safe areas” you’re probably going to have to hail a car service, not a yellow cab.

    What about “fixing” the taxi system. Fixing it for who? Sure, we can add cabs, then at rush hour there won’t be a wait but during the slow times there will be hundreds of empty cabs clogging the roads and looking for fares that do not exist. They will try hustling passengers, they will rip off tourists and fight with other cab drivers.

    If you want to criticize then do some research. Learn why cabs are so regulated in the first place. Be careful of what you wish for. Do you really want some guy sitting at 17th and DeHaro and trying to coax you while you’re trying to wait for a bus?

  8. joann Landers (unregistered) on February 15th, 2007 @ 5:42 pm

    The other day I was traveling up Van Ness Ave., with a fare from San Jos̩, and between Market St. and Clay St. I could have picked up numerous times. (Note: Even when unoccupied, I do not have a permit that allows my picking up in the city of San FranciscoРI can meet personals at SFO)

    Driving cab is a love/hate state of being. The relationship between the cab company and the driver is possibly like no other working partnership. Then add to that mix, the city, the State of California, and the IRS, and you can pity the poor cabbie. The State would love nothing more than for us to be employees. The reason being they are concerened we do not pay our share of taxes.

    True, many cabbies are desperate people with few other skills, but over the years I have known drivers with college degrees who are content with their job choice. Part of the lure is the freedom of time and movement. We work when and where we feel like it.

    The problem may not have a solution. We (cabbies) are “independent contractors” the Company, the city, nor Mayor Newsom can proclaim ‘San Francisco will have a cab stand at 17th & DeHaro with x number of cabs.’ Adding any number of cabs to the streets will not help the random customer.

  9. mark (unregistered) on February 15th, 2007 @ 6:36 pm

    I was not actually suggesting there be a cab stand at 17th and De Haro — that would be silly. What I was suggesting is that it would behoove cab drivers to cruise past corners like this where three different Muni lines converge and where commuters from outside the city park their cars to catch Muni to go downtown.

    If people don’t like the suggestion of 17th and De Haro, then let me suggest a few other places where three bus lines converge and you’re bound to have some impatient people who missed their transfer:
    9th and Judah.
    8th and Fulton.
    16th and Bryant.
    Masonic and California.
    Union and Van Ness.
    Market and Van Ness, for the love of Christ. You know how hard it is to get a cab there? Please!!

  10. another blathering commenter (unregistered) on February 15th, 2007 @ 7:16 pm

    Mark, it sounds like you have a lot of frustration with this issue and should maybe try the job for awhile and see if you can improve the service.

    One of the reasons Market & Van Ness is hard to catch a cab is the nature of the intersection. A driver cannot cut over to where you always want him. I am always amazed at people who think cabs can levitate over lanes & medians and switch directions to meet them exactly where they are standing.

    The bustop on Van Ness heading north is the best place to catch a cab there, but may not be in the direction you are headed. Market & Van Ness while heavily trafficed is also simply too wide & congested to accomodate many easy pickups.

  11. bc (unregistered) on February 15th, 2007 @ 9:16 pm

    the idea of cabs cruising around areas that are supposedly major transit nodes is nothing new. but it depends on the context. a transit node like transbay terminal, or grand central station, or even the caltrain station at 4th and king is obvious and expected.

    but muni lines? in SF neighborhoods with relatively low commercial and residential densities? i don’t think so.

    the volumn of people waiting around at an intersection in some SF neighborhood where several muni lines converge isn’t nearly as high as the volumn of people who disembark from train or subway at a major station. and do you seriously think that the large majority of ‘impatient’ commuters from potrero hill or pac heights are going to pay 10-15 bucks one-way just to get to work on a daily basis?

  12. joann Landers (unregistered) on February 16th, 2007 @ 7:42 am

    Cruising around will use too much gas.

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