Category Archives: Taxi Under Siege

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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The thin checkered line revisited

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An Argument on Wheels

The other night I’m transporting a bouncer from The Fillmore to his apartment on Leavenworth. We’re inbound on Post when an Uber/Lyft in front of me hits the hazards and comes to a sudden stop.

I slam on my brakes and look in my side mirror. There’s a motorcycle in the other lane but I seem to have enough space to move over.

The biker, however, disagrees. He beeps his tiny horn and screams at me, “Watch out, motherfucker!”

At the light, I roll down the passenger window to apologize but the biker can’t hear me and most likely assumes I’m just talking shit.

He’s keeps yelling, “Motherfucker! You better watch your ass! I’ll fuck you up, motherfucker!”

It’s an honest mistake, but the guy acts like I’ve committed a capital crime and should be dragged out of my cab and pummeled into hamburger meat on the asphalt.

Now I’m sure the biker’s anger had more to do with the fact that I’m driving a taxi than anything else. Whenever there’s an altercation on the road and blame must be incurred, the easiest target is always the taxi. Not the fucking idiot Uber/Lyft driver who could have easily pulled into an open space to drop his passenger but chose instead to impede traffic since they don’t drive with common sense and just follow GPS directions. They’re not in a taxi, though. Despite the small, barely perceptible Uber and Lyft placards in their windows, they resemble any other vehicle. So they get a pass.

The taxi, though, is the idiot mucking up traffic…

As someone who drives a regular vehicle in the city as well as a taxicab, I’ve noticed over the years how different the two experiences are and how other drivers treat you when you’re driving a cab.

People seem to have this innate hatred of taxis based on the stereotypes that we’re filled with road rage, drive like maniacs and have no respect for anyone else on the road.

In reality, taxi drivers, who log 40+ hours a week behind the wheel, are some of the better drivers on the road.

Along with all the other difficulties of transporting people in an urban environment, there’s the constant disdain from the general public that never once considers the struggles we go through everyday trying to earn a living driving on the mean streets of San Francisco. Which is the topic for this week’s revisited * column…

Read it here.

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* Revisited from a column published last year.

Looking for Fares in All the Wrong Places

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My column this week for the S.F. Examiner is an attempt to shed some light on one of the most confusing aspects of the taxi industry: the medallion system.

While discussing health problems and money woes, Loco and I shiver in the chilly night air and surreptitiously eyeball the BART passengers emerging from the station.

Loco has a paid medallion. As he describes the headaches and heartbreaks of paying off a $250,000 taxi medallion in the Age of Uber, his story echoes those of other paid medallion holders I’ve spoken to. It’s always tragic, since the only solution is for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency to admit that the program to sell taxi medallions is a complete failure and offer financial amnesty to anyone who forked out a quarter of a million dollars for their worthless piece of tin.

The medallion was supposed to be a safety net for drivers as they got older. But for those struggling to pay off loans when the vehicle-for-hire business is in the toilet, it’s an albatross. 

Read the rest here.

[image via]

Return of the Gypsy Cab That’s One Step Ahead

Last time we checked in with out favorite gypsy cab, the fake medallion number had been covered with electrical tape in some feeble attempt to go incognito as it sat parked in plain site outside the California Smoke Shop on Geary Street:

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photo by Bradley Voelker

In fact, the driver of this gypsy cab spends so much time at that smoke shop, it’s been captured on Google Street View:

Several weeks back, I was cab standing at The Great Northern and saw him drive by with a garbage bag taped over his back window, after someone obviously smashed it in. And no wonder, since the SFPD, the DMV and the SFMTA were all notified of this illegal operation and all claimed to have no jurisdiction over it. But a broken window didn’t stop this scofflaw…

Now, the Gypsy Cab that’s One Step Ahead is back, more brazen than ever. With a crafty new medallion number: 007.

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photo by Gerry Rowland

As you can see, the license plates are the same:

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But now he’s enlisted a new driver.

Numerous taxi drivers have spotted him around the city.

Even Stanley Roberts, who produces the People Behaving Badly series for KRON4 News, posted about the fake cab on Facebook:

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I guess claiming to be a SAM Francisco/Redwood City cab makes him immune to the laws of SAN Francisco.

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photo by Christian Lewis

He even has a phone number on the outside. And why not? He’s immune to any sanctions by the city.

Just goes to show… you can get away with anything in San Francisco, except, apparently, eating pizza at a bus stop. Gotta draw the line somewhere…

[All images, other than screengrabs, courtesy of the omnipresent SF Hackers.]

The Gypsy Cab That’s One Step Ahead

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Wouldn’t it be nice… to run a taxi without paying gates or commercial insurance or any permits to the city… think of all the cash you’d be raking in. Well, the guy who’s running this illegal taxi has been doing just that. And getting away with it.

I first spotted him on October 8, 2016, outside the night club Mighty on Utah at 15th Street. Once I saw the taximeter on the dash, the official looking ad topper that adorns most Yellow SUVs and a brightly lit toplight that clearly read TAXI, I confronted the driver, asking if he was running a gypsy cab. He promptly told me to fuck off. So I took these pictures. I tried to take some video of passengers getting into his illegal taxi andhis top light going out when he hit the meter, but my phone didn’t cooperate.

The medallion numbers on the side 983 don’t belong to a working Yellow Cab, according to the Yellow taxi company (we checked). So this is obviously a decommissioned taxi from their fleet that the driver probably bought in an auction. Or he may be a former driver for Yellow, or a mechanic. It would seem that he has some experience in the taxi industry.

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Most of the markings have been removed. The permits, obviously, the “SAN FRANCISCO TAXICAB,” along with Yellow’s logo and phone number. The license plate is not associated with a Yellow cab, even though it’s a commercial plate. More on that later though…

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In December 2016, taxi driver Barry Taranto took this picture of the same illegal cab. Notice the license plate is different.

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A Fog City Cab driver took this next photo of the illegal taxi parked in the Tenderloin with a license plate in the dash, which matches the plates on the first photos I took.

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Over the past several months, the SFMTA taxi division was notified. Since the driver usually parks the vehicles in the TL, without any concern of getting in trouble, an enforcement officer with the SFMTA went by and left a note under the windshield wiper with his number. The gypsy cab driver, surprise, surprise, didn’t call.

Since then, drivers continue to report seeing the illegal cab all over town, as well as consistently parked in the TL, near where the driver apparently lives.

Last week, on Larkin, I saw the cab parked outside New Century Theater and noticed he’d covered the medallion numbers with electrical tape.

Barry Taranto took the following photos outside Badlands on 18th Street in The Castro on February 13, 2016. Notice the license plate is different again, although still a commercial plate. So we know he has at least three plates.

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Despite covering the medallion number and the YoTaxi markings on the bumper, he still has the same ad topper and…

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A functioning taximeter on the dash.

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Out of curiosity, a taxi driver looked up the license plates on the DMV site. Two came back without a match, but the first one has $700 worth of fines associated with it.

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BTW, this is the real Medallion 983. It’s a Flywheel taxicab. According the SFMTA database of medallion owners, 983 belongs to Samra Bikramjit.

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So what does any of this amount to? Not much, according to the SFMTA taxi division. Not much, according to the cops and parking control officers, who just keep adding on tickets. Would the DMV give a shit? Would City Hall? Would anyone?

Essentially, this a lesson to all aspiring scofflaws in this city. You can do whatever the fuck you want and never face the consequences. Why lease a taxi from a cab company? Why pay gates? Why pay for permits? Why do anything but get a decommissioned cab with a taximeter and a toplight and go make some serious cash on the streets of San Francisco?

If this guy can do it, why can’t you? Hell, why can’t any of us?

It’s not like you’d ever get busted. After all, we’ve known about him for at least 5 months. Who knows how longs he’s been at it and how long he’ll continue to get away with it until someone stops him.

Fly-by-night Outrage

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After gleefully watching the #DeleteUber movement gain traction on social media for a week, I was curious if there would be any residual effects from the boycott when I started my shift on Thursday. Even though most of the protesters were switching to Lyft, some folks did recommend Flywheel. A few even kept it old school and suggested flagging down one of the hundreds of empty cabs rolling around The City …

As I leave the National yard that afternoon, I check my Flywheel phone and get the same error: Can’t connect to server. It’s been over a week now. From what I’ve read on Hackers, it’s affecting many drivers, but only those who don’t drive for Flywheel Taxi, the cab company, that is, not the app.

Fortunately, the outage doesn’t interfere with the user end of the app. People can request rides, and drivers, especially those who work for Flywheel Taxi — again, the cab company, not the app — are still receiving orders …

Flywheel has been around since I started driving a taxi. I’ve always incorporated the app into my driving rhythm. Without it, I have no choice but to hunt down fares the old-fashioned way. I work the Financial, Union Square, SoMa and the Mission. When dropping outside the metro area, I have to remind myself not to linger, as I usually do with the Flywheel app open, and hightail it back downtown.

You don’t really notice how much business you get from the Flywheel app until it’s gone.

Read the rest of this column here.

[photo by Christian Lewis]

The Goons Come Out in the Rain

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This week’s column for the S.F. Examiner is about driving in the rain with the Keystone Kops on parade…

The rain brings out the madness normally only seen during natural disasters. After all, this is California, where even the faintest hint of precipitation threatens the already thin veil of civility. And once it really starts pouring … well, then all bets are off …

I’m driving westbound on North Point when an SUV pulls up alongside me, also going westbound. There’s an Uber symbol in the window. When the light turns green, I keep pace, curious when he’s going to realize he’s driving on the wrong side of the road. As we approach Larkin, another SUV is traveling eastbound. Also an Uber. The original SUV, oblivious that he’s doing anything out of the ordinary, even though there’s a vehicle heading straight toward him, maintains his trajectory until both SUVs stop, face to face, and try to determine who has the right of way…

Later, I’m heading north on Sixth Street when I encounter an accident in front of Monarch. A Prius nailed a Porsche. Based on the positions of the vehicles, it looks like one of the drivers made an illegal left onto Mission. The accident is bad enough the cops showed up. As I’m trying to get through the light, a Lyft driver is waiting in the intersection, left blinker flashing. Once the rain lets up for a moment, I pull into the taxi stand at The Palace for a smoke break. Before I get out, though, a woman comes out of the hotel and gets into the front seat of my cab.

“Do you know the bar Kells?”

“Sure.”

Judging by her accent, she’s Australian, which explains why she’s in the front seat.

On the way to North Beach, she tells me an Uber driver had groped her earlier.

“What?” I’m aghast. “Did you call the police?”

“Yes. And I emailed Uber and my lawyer,” she says. “That bastard is gonna regret messing with me.”

“Were you in the front seat?” I inquire.

Of course she was. She’s Australian. I feel like an asshole pointing out that most Americans don’t sit up front in taxis or Ubers. Because, in an ideal world, women should be able to sit wherever the fuck they want to in a car. But this is America. Trump’s America…

Around 2:30 a.m., I’m heading down Van Ness. At Mission, two guys flag me.

The first one opens the front door.

“It’s better in the back,” I say.

“He rides shotgun,” the other guy snarls. “That’s his thing.”

“We’re going to Golden Boy,” Mr. Shotgun tells me. He seems less drunk than his friend.

“Must be nice, getting paid to drive recklessly through The City,” the guy in back says.

“That’s pretty much my job description.” I make a hard right onto Pearl and rumble over the brick pavement to Market Street.

“You know where you’re going?” he slaps the back of my seat. “We need ’za!”

“Is Golden Boy even still open?” I check my phone at the light. “Nope.” Closed one minute ago.

They seem dumbfounded by this turn of events. I suggest Escape from New York on Polk Street. But they’re closed, too.

“What about the pizza places on Geary?”

No, they don’t want Geary pizza.

“Where’s home?” I ask.

The Presidio.

“So Pizza Orgasmica then?”

As we careen over the hills on Franklin, the guy in back applauds my driving and knowledge of pizza joints. I can almost sense what’s going to happen next.

When we reach Pizza Orgasmica, both guys start to exit the cab.

“Hey, you have to pay me for the ride,” I point out.

“What do you mean?” the guy in back asks. “This is Lyft.”

“Man, this is the furthest thing from Lyft.” I point at the meter, which reads $12.30.
“That’s some false representation,” he slurs. “You’re a real asshole, you know that?”
“So you don’t like me anymore?”

“I never liked you. Dan, fuck this guy. Don’t pay him.” He jeers at me. “Fuck you!”

“Fuck you too, dickhead.” I laugh some more. We’re just having fun. Locker room talk.

His eyes are enraged, like he’s about to get violent.

Dan gives me a ten and a five.

“Change back?” I ask.

“Yeah, change back, asshole,” the guy in back seethes.

Sure thing. Happy to serve. I hand Dan back three singles. Once they’re clear of my cab, I take off. In my rearview I see the guy flipping me off.

It’s stopped raining. For now, at least.

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This column elicited some angry reader responses:

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