San Francisco's Taxi Wars Heat Up

(Photo: Casey Miner)

Listen to the radio version of this story at KALW.

(San Francisco) Most people don’t think of taxi cabs when they conjure a public transportation network. Seven thousand taxi drivers make constant pickups around San Francisco, and officials say a proposed series of changes could make life better for them, and attract more people as passengers. But not all the cabbies buy it, and they’ve been making their feelings known.

Last Tuesday more than 100 taxis converged on an MTA board meeting to protest what they say is unfair treatment by the city. They drove around City Hall for two hours, with signs on their cabs saying, “Strike,” and honking pretty much continuously.

Driver Sung Nguyen said. "We’re here to strike the MTA; they [treat] the cab drivers unfairly. About the five percent credit card fee, the electronic waybill," the current record keeping system, which could change under the new rules.

There’s a lot to the San Francisco taxi wars, and it can get confusing pretty fast, so here’s a primer on all the taxi turmoil:

The roughly 7,000 taxi drivers in San Francisco are operated by more than two dozen companies. They aren’t city employees, but the city regulates them just like any other mode of transit. It’s been that way since 2009.

Over the past several months, the MTA has tried to make some changes to the way taxis operate, similar to those imposed in other cities, like New York, also over driver objections. First, the MTA mandated that all drivers accept credit cards. If you’re a passenger, that’s great. But credit cards come with processing fees, and those fees come out of the drivers’ pockets. That’s one of the reasons for the protest.

The MTA also wants to install backseat terminals in all the cabs that would show ads and other information, as well as let passengers swipe their own cards. And they want to start requiring companies to keep electronic records of every pickup and drop off.  Right now, drivers are supposed keep those records on paper – they’re called waybills. Officials say these changes will modernize the industry and make it better for everyone. But some drivers think the city is just out to make money.

Ricardo Silva was one of the protesting taxi drivers at City Hall. He’s been driving for almost 14 years. He gave up a day of work to protest, because, he says the demonstration is more important. He says drivers can’t afford the credit card fees, and that electronic records are too invasive. "It’s like, tracking us, it’s like we are criminals, you know what I mean? Prisoners don’t get that, why do cab drivers have to? They get bracelets but when they are finished they take the bracelets off. But now they are 24 hours tracking us. It’s not fair."

This an example of something the MTA and drivers don’t see eye-to-eye on. Christiane Hayashi is the city’s deputy director of taxi services. She pointed to a stack of paper waybills as evidence of how antiquated the current system is. "These are filled out – sometimes they’re filled out fully, sometimes they’re filled out partially, sometimes there’s just a name on them, sometimes they’re empty. Here’s one that just has two entries; neither of them is legible. These are not reliable business records. They’re not reliable transit records."

The city’s hoping that by switching to electronic records they’ll be able to get a picture of how the taxi industry operates. Things like, where are the busiest areas for taxis? When do most people take them? Why are people taking them? Hayashi says that we know these things about agencies like Muni and BART, but, not taxis. "What data do we have about the taxi industry in one of the world’s most important cities, San Francisco? Nothing! Absolutely nothing."

Hayashi says the city is trying to help cab drivers. If they know more about the business, they can work on getting more people to take cabs. But not all the drivers trust the city. At Tuesday’s meeting, the MTA board was supposed to discuss some of the taxi issues, including a fare increase that would be the drivers’ first raise in eight years. They were also going to consider issuing temporary driver permits that could put more cabs on the street at busy times. But at the last minute, they had to take everything off the agenda. They said they needed to finish a legally required environmental review. The change didn’t stop drivers from packing the meeting room. Joe Marabole spoke for an industry group called the United Taxicab Workers.

"I wanted to thank the MTA for uniting San Francisco’s cab industry with its corrosive policies such as the sale of medallions, the rear seat terminals, has awakened an industry that has long tolerated abuses from the MTA. You should not be ruining our industry. We won’t go away. We will return again and again until our voices are heard."

One issue raised by the drivers was the very relationship between drivers and the MTA. The city makes money from taxis, but the drivers aren’t city employees. So what amount of regulation is fair? MTA’s Christiane Hayashi says, "These are working people, and I trust in that. We’re not interested in being Big Brother."

The Board will take up taxi issues again in August. If you want to know exactly what day, just listen for the honking.