Category Archives: Cab Driving

A random encounter every time

One of the first things I learned about driving a taxi was that it’s always a mystery who’s going to climb in the back of your taxi.

The uncertainty of where a ride will take you can be exhilarating and terrifying.

Oftentimes, simultaneously.

This collection of fascinating photographs, taken by photographer Bill Washburn in the 80s, perfectly captures the randomness in the ebb and flow of daily transit.

Washburn drove a San Francisco taxi from 1982 to 1986. During that time he documented the experience with a camera mounted to the dashboard.

Washburn’s photos, which include part of his own face in the frame with the passengers in the backseat, not only document the randomness of taxi driving, but also the awkward intimacy that comes from sharing an enclosed space with a stranger for a prolonged period of time.

I’m often curious how other drivers interact with their passengers.

Alex Sack, the Buddhist taxi documentarian, wrote in a recent blogpost about a ride to the airport: “I throw on some KDFC Classical 90.3FM, lest Constantine and I ride in, uh, awkward silence.” Background music is a familiar theme in Sack’s writing.

I tend to drive with just sounds of the city as a soundtrack. And the occasional burst of chatter from the dispatch radio. With few auditory distractions, the slightest utterance can potentially lead to a conversation. Which is my way of pursuing a story…

Taxi driving and the artistic pursuit are not strange bedfellows. There have been TV shows, movies, books, songs and all sorts of other creative representations of driving for hire.

Two other photographers who found inspiration behind the wheel of a taxi that instantly spring to mind are Erik Hagen, who drove a taxi in LA, and David Bradford, a NY taxi driver.

Washburn’s taxi photos are different, though, in that he turns the camera around, and focuses on the inside of the taxi. Where so much of the randomness really occurs…

For me, these still frame moments don’t just resonate because I’ve helmed the wheel of a cab. Long before I ever drove a taxi, I rode in them and the experience was always an occasion – either special or desperate.

My earliest memory is being in the back of a taxi, when my mother’s car broke down and she called a cab to take me to preschool. The driver was listening to the news on the radio. Something about President Ford…

The subtle revelations in Washburn’s snapshots pull me closer to the person in the back, stoking my curiosity about who these people were and what their lives were like outside of this short cab ride.

Another obvious quality to these photos is the time they capture: San Francisco in the 80s. Which isn’t just a bygone era, but also a time when taxicabs were the accepted form of private transportation.

Nowadays, Uber and Lyft are all the rage.

Having driven an Uber/Lyft before switching to taxi, I found app-based transportation to be a neutered experience.

Even though Uber and Lyft function essentially the same as a taxi – they both involve driving people for money – there is little spontaneity with the former.

Pick up and drop off points, along with routes, are all recorded.

You know the passenger’s name before they get in the car. They know yours.

There’s an assumed vetting process.

And the rating system gives the passenger all the control. Uber/Lyft drivers know that if they step out of line, they can get deactivated. Which limits uncertainly and creates a passive experience for the driver.

In a taxi, anyone or anything can happen.

That’s what makes these photos so intriguing: they expose the random adventure that comes from moving through the city, untethered by technology.

View the collection of photos, annotated and with an essay by Pete Brook here.

[all photos by Bill Washburn, used with permission]

[thanks to Pete Brook for turning me on to this project]

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Waiting for the Orpheum to break…

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Last week I get a text from Colin: “Wholly shit; I’m doing homework for the first time in a decade, putting Open World, Dreamforce, Castro Street Fair in schedule.”

Holy shit, times sure have changed. Back when I always made sure to know what convention was at Moscone, what shows were at the theaters and who was playing at the concert venues, Colin would snicker and call me “cute” for “being such a good rookie.”

Now that he’s embraced the new way of taxi driving, Colin isn’t just queuing outside hotels, Davies Hall and the War Memorial, he’s preparing for what to expect.

Of course, there are times when it pays to do your homework. Like last Thursday, when a bunch of clueless cab drivers were staging outside the Masonic and complaining about not getting any fares – they might not have wasted their time at the Nob Hill concert hall if they knew about the night’s headliner, Harry Styles. People who pay to see a former boy band singer are not as likely to take a taxi after the show as those who go to the opera, where about thirty people waited desperately for a ride home.

I heard the whistles on Franklin before even turning onto Grove.

After taking my fare from the War Memorial to the St. Francis, I head to the Orpheum, where “An American in Paris” is about to break, and line up on Hyde Street.

A few minutes later, the side doors open and the audience pours out into the night. I wave a man and a woman forward. He opens the door and she gets in first. Tells me their destination:

“The Ritz.”

I hit the meter and maneuver through the surge of vehicles quickly descending on the area.

As I turn right onto Larkin, the man comments on City Hall, awash in multicolored lights.

“What are the colors for? The flag?”

“I think it’s to commemorate the Folsom Street Fair this weekend,” I suggest, even though the colors aren’t exactly the same as the rainbow colors usually associated with the LGBT community.

“What street fair?” he asks.

“Folsom. It’s a celebration of…” I hesitate, unsure how to explain the festival to mixed company.

The woman beats me to it. “Folsom Street Fair is a leather and bondage event,” she explains.

“Oh,” the man replies.

“Yeah. They’re expecting over 200,000 attendees. I haven’t looked forward to seeing a bunch of hot, sweaty half-naked dudes this much since I used to watch WWF wrestling religiously.”

After trying to take a selfie with City Hall is the background, the couple asks how my night has been going. There’s not much to report.

“So, is driving a cab your only job in The City?” the woman asks.

“I also, uh… write.”

“Oh, what do you write?” the man wants to know.

“Besides other things, I write a weekly column for the Examiner about driving a taxi.”

“You want a story?” the man asks with a chuckle. “I could tell you my name.”

“Let’s not do that!” the woman chides him.

I glance in the rearview but it’s too dark to make out his face clearly. “What’s your name?”

He laughs again.

“Come on,” she insists. “We’re almost to the hotel.”

Read the rest here.

Teatime for the insurrection

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The In-Between: Tea Talks

This was a very interesting project I participated in with a few other cab drivers. The idea, as conceived by creator Lexa Walsh, was to have people from diverging points of view get together over tea and hors d’oeuvres and talk things through.

The project gathers artists, writers, tech workers, “sharing economy” laborers (Uber and Lyft drivers, AirBnB hosts) and their critics (taxi drivers, tenants rights activists) together in a hospitable environment so each may share their positions in a safe yet open and critical dialogue. Each position will be respectfully held in the space.

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Besides taxi drivers, there were supposed to be a few Uber/Lyft drivers, but she wasn’t able to find any willing to participate. So we sat around the table, drinking tea and talking about the problems we face because of the onslaught of unregulated/untrained drivers.

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Some of the quotes were commemorated on plates that hung in the backroom gallery at Adobe after the talks.

 

San Francisco is no way to treat a human

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“Sometimes I just want to scream, ‘Has everyone lost their goddamn minds?’”

Considering the windows or my taxi are rolled down, and we’re sitting at a red light on Market Street, I think to myself: You kind of did. But this is no time to split hairs. My fare is currently explaining the politics of flipism.

“That’s how shit gets done in San Francisco.” He clears his throat. “They use a Magic 8-Ball. ‘Should we anchor this high-rise condominium to the bedrock?’ Someone shakes the 8-Ball. ‘My sources say no.’ Then, the person in charge goes, ‘OK, fellas. You heard the Magic 8-Ball.’”

The guy has been shouting at the back of my head since I picked him up on a radio order. We began this journey from the Inner Richmond to AT&T on the agreed-upon circuitous route of California to Presidio to Bush to Octavia to Post to Hyde to Market (!) to Fourth and then, “Just drop me at the train station. I’ll walk the rest of the way so I can suck down a few cigarettes before the game.”

Read the rest of the column here.

Hell is other cab drivers

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I never thought having a child would help me deal with driving a taxi. But the shrieking of an infant reminds me of those impatient cab drivers who use their horns to communicate …

A few weeks ago, I’m lining up on Market Street waiting for the Orpheum to break.

Several cabs have already queued. I pull behind an unmarked SUV with its hazards on. I don’t know if it’s an Uber, so I keep my distance. A Flywheel cab gets behind me and starts blowing his horn. Several taps at first, but then he really lays on it.

Is he honking at me? I wonder. And if so, why?

Finally, the guy gets out walks to the front of my cab. He starts gesturing at the space between the SUV and me. In broken English, he tells me to pull up. I try to explain that I don’t know what the SUV is going to do and want to avoid getting stuck. But he keeps shouting at me, so I just move up grudgingly.

He bellyaches all the way back to his cab.

A few minutes later, the show lets out, and people start getting in cabs.

The Flywheel driver, who doesn’t seem to know how to work the theaters, starts blowing his horn again and trying to get around me on the left. I see people get into the taxis in front of the SUV, which, predictably, doesn’t move. As a couple heads for my cab, the Flywheel is angled on my left so that when a lady tries to get into his cab, he’s too far away and she gets into the Fog City behind him.

I hit reverse to move around the SUV to escape the melee.

When it comes to an 8-month-old, screaming pretty much gets the desired result. According to baby experts, she doesn’t understand “No!” yet and, well, we really don’t want our neighbors to hate us too much. For taxi drivers who use their horns to communicate, though, it doesn’t always pay…

Read the rest here.

Pretty Fly (for a Taxi Hailing App)

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My biggest gripe with Flywheel (the app, not the taxi company, formerly called DeSoto, who tried to promote the Flywheel app by changing their name and color scheme) is that, instead of focusing on getting users through marketing, the company put all their energy in TaxiOS, a backend system to replace the current hardwired taximeter.

The obvious reason for doing this was to sell out. Which they did. To a company called Cabconnect. When I met the CEO of Cabconnect a few months ago, the first thing I asked was how he planned to handle marketing.

He had several ideas about incorporating paratransit into the app, as well as unique ways to hails a cab from hospitals and bars, but he didn’t have many ideas about WHY people would want to use the app to get a taxi.

Shortly thereafter, these ads popped up on Flywheel’s Twitter account:

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Beyond emphasizing that taxi drivers are properly vetted and trained, and that taxi rates don’t go up depending upon demand, these ads don’t really explain what makes taxis a better option.

Most users don’t care about the issue of training, insurance and background checks. And many users are more than willing to pay surge pricing.

So… what makes taxis special?

Figuring out the answer to that question compelled me to write the column “Disrupt the Disruptors,” but as the taxi industry continues to crumble, even the greatest marketing campaign ever conceived on Madison Ave hardly seems to stand a chance against the PR damage that’s been done…

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Disrupting the Disruptors?

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This week’s column for the S.F. Examiner is about the recent decision to give the money in the Driver Fund to the cab drivers, app-based transportation and marketing…

It’s hard not to feel like my taxi driving days are numbered. Hell, the entire industry seems doomed. As things continue to go from bad to worse, Green Cab started a GoFundMe campaign this week to crowdfund the $30,000 they need to stay in business, while the SFMTA plans to divvy up $4.7 million among 5,000 cab drivers to the tune of $400 to $900 each, based on seniority.

So what am I going to do with my “windfall?” Pay off my backbook at National? Buy a couple cartons of cigarettes? Wipe my ass with four crisp $100 bills?

Not to be rude, but using the Taxi Driver Fund as a retirement package is shortsighted and stupid. Even if I were to get the same share as a 30-year veteran, my rent is $1,700 a month. It’ll take more than a few hundred dollars to offset my financial problems.

When they mail the checks, they should write in the memo line, “Thanks for nothing, chump!”

Personally, I voted to spend the Driver Fund on advertising. Which may seem just as stupid, since taxis are repeatedly called a “legacy” industry, as if they’re already obsolete. But the only difference between an Uber/Lyft vehicle and a taxi is a color scheme and a phone number painted on the side. Oh, and centralized dispatch.

Uber and Lyft didn’t disrupt taxis, they disrupted the taxi companies that resisted centralized dispatch and made no effort to provide consistently good customer service. Brag about fingerprinting all you want, but if you can’t prevent a driver from kicking an old lady to the curb because she wants to use a credit card, you’re going to lose your customers once a better option is available.

Read the rest here.