Category Archives: Taxi Under Siege

The Man Behind the Madness

 

This week’s column is about one of the unsung heroes, and soon to be casualties, of the taxi industry: the window man.

On Saturday morning, I turn in my cab around 7 a.m. Before making the long trek to the 24th Street BART station, I hang around the National office, chatting with Jesse about the corner market he recently bought on Silver and Cambridge. While it wasn’t in the greatest shape when he took over, with the help of his sons, they’ve cleaned the place up, started carrying fresh produce, stocking craft beer and reopened the deli. Business is booming.

“So … how much longer are you gonna stick around this dump?”

Read the rest here.

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A Fool’s Errand

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This column is a continuation of the Flywheel debacle that began with “Pimp my Taximeter.” For a summary of the whole shit fest, go here.

Since last week’s column, I’ve responded to numerous emails and comments from readers worried that continuing to use the Flywheel app was a problem because of the resent unsavory business decisions by the owner, Hansu Kim.

Despite my criticism, let me be perfectly clear:

Keep using Flywheel! Please!

As previously mentioned, Flywheel, or an app like it, is vital for the survival of the San Francisco taxi industry. That is what makes Hansu’s actions so deplorable. Not only is he threatening the livelihoods of taxi drivers, who are already struggling to survive in a market skewed to favor the competition, but he’s also jeopardizing the patronage of the small percentage of San Franciscans who still use cabs by limiting their access to prompt service.

Since removing a large number of drivers off the platform, there have been reports of longer-than-usual wait times. Of course, one benefit of having fewer taxis online is that many drivers are seeing a marked increase in ride requests.

Despite my decision to abandon the app out of solidarity with the drivers who have been unfairly targeted, when Artur offered to reconfigure my Flywheel phone so I can accept orders again, it seemed foolish to resist. And not just because he threatened to smack me around for being an idiot.

Even though I’m still reluctant to go online, boycotting Flywheel only benefits the competition.

Read the rest here.

[photo by Christian Lewis]

A Timeline of Flywheel’s Scheme to “Ensure a Superior Experience”

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Just when things couldn’t get any worse for the San Francisco taxi industry…

On April 4, Flywheel sent out a message to all the drivers on their platform, notifying us that, “In our continuing effort to ensure a superior experience for drivers and passengers in San Francisco, Flywheel Technlogies will be suspending all orders to drivers who do not drive for one of Flywheel’s Color Scheme partners on April 9th, 2018.”

 


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The following day, April 5, Joe Fitzgerald, wrote about Flywheel’s decision in the S.F. Examiner.

“It’s a war starting” – John Lazar of Luxor Cab

Flywheel Technologies was on the verge of closing but was purchased in late 2017 by Hansu Kim, he told the Examiner. Kim also co-owns Flywheel Taxi, the cab company that sports the logo of the app on its cabs, which was formerly DeSoto Cab Co.

Kim and the new owner of Yellow Cab, Chris Sweis, have different visions for Uber-like apps to draw riders back to taxis. Yellow Cab’s current offering, YoTaxi, is branded with Yellow Cab colors, which some insiders said may confuse riders of different-colored cab companies.

Sweis, the owner of Citywide cab, recently purchased both Yellow Cab and Luxor Cab, among the largest cab companies in The City. Flywheel Taxi is its largest rival.

Kim said the cab companies Flywheel barred from using its app were operating under-par in a variety of ways: Vehicles did not have proper insurance, drivers cleared to use Flywheel were sharing the app with unlicensed drivers, and some taxi companies refused to sport Flywheel logos on their vehicles.

“We’ve had drivers provide a poor level of service to the passenger,” Kim said, “We’re trying to force the industry to abide by certain service standards.”

But Sweis, the owner of Yellow Cab, said he’s “worried” that Flywheel is breaking its promise to “unite the entire industry.”


On April 6, Flywheel sent out a message that a few cab companies were now working to become color scheme partners:

 


On April 7, more cab companies were added to the list of potential color scheme partners:

 


On April 9, Joe Fitzgerald wrote more about the decision for the S.F. Examiner.

All told, 1,053 taxi drivers would have been effected, according to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. But as of Monday, Kim told the San Francisco Examiner that many of those companies were discussing options with Flywheel.

“It’s safe to say we are in talks,” said Mark Gruberg, who helped found Green Cab and serves on its board. “We have not made any commitment … We have not yet seen a contract. We have no idea, and I don’t think anyone else does either, what he’s asking of us.”

Though companies like Green Cab are in talks with Kim, the only holdouts are apparently the co-owned companies Yellow Cab Co-Op, Luxor Cab, and Citywide, as well a handful of smaller companies such as S.F. Taxi, Vina Cab, American Cab, and Comfort Cab.

The combined Yellow Cab, Luxor Cab and Citywide are, together, Flywheel’s largest rival.


Chris Speis, owner of the Citywide/Luxor/Yellow consortium, issued this response:

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On April 11, at the SFMTA Taxi Task Force, the main topic was Flywheel’s decision.

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Joe Fitzgerald was there to document the proceedings, which included a large group of angry taxi drivers:

They called Kim “useless” and said his decision was “extortion” and “cutting off your nose to spite your face.” They said Kim had a “God complex” and accused him of “lying,” running a “dictatorship,” and “effectively putting a gun to everyone’s head.”

Few were happy. But they also wanted answers.

Kim alleged taxi drivers would accept a rider’s request on Flywheel, only to cancel it once someone hailed them on the street “with luggage,” implying a lucrative airport trip, and that taxi drivers would tell Flywheel customers “it’s a scam” and demand cash. Kim also alleged some taxi companies misstated the number of cabs in their fleet when filling out insurance forms in order to seek lower premiums, and would not provide insurance documentation to Flywheel to prove otherwise.

“The fact is, overall, the level of service in the taxi industry is extremely poor,” Kim said.

Ultimately, Hansu and Chris Sweis agreed go into mediation to sort out the debacle so drivers could resume getting orders and the people of San Francisco could continue to get prompt service.


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Also on April 11, taxi blogger Alex Sack wrote about his concerns about the Flywheel app (which he refers to by its original came Cabulous) and his efforts to stay on the platform without sacrificing the entire industry to their control.

This is some misguided response to the new owner of Yellow cab having recently bought CityWide and Luxor, and consolidating them all under Yellow’s YoTaxi app! But, hmm… That doesn’t preclude those drivers from also servicing Cabulous hails on their personally-supplied Android, like me. Hell! And Citizen’s Cab isn’t involved with Yellow, or their YoTaxi app! Why are we on the list. Huh? Cabulous is pulling some crazy gambit to bully Citizen’s Cab, et al, to ditch their meters for the proprietary Cabulous one?? Like, after this, they should be trusted with half of San Francisco’s taxis dependent of their “smart meter” for every flag, hail or dispatch, and metering EVERY ride!


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My column appeared in the S.F. Examiner on April 12, where I try to convey the concerns of the drivers about Flywheel pushing to replace our traditional taximeters with their proprietary backend system called TaxiOS, as well as Flywheel’s Uber-like behavior:

As the prime movers behind the Uberization of San Francisco’s taxi industry, Flywheel, the taxi-hailing app, and Flywheel, the taxi company, seem so intent on emulating Uber that they’re even taking a page out of deposed CEO Travis Kalanick’s “Guide to Being a Complete Dirtbag.”

Last Wednesday, Flywheel sent out a message informing drivers not affiliated with one of their color scheme partners that we’ll no longer be receiving orders through the app. Unless, that is, we switch to one of the six color scheme partners.

Drivers were understandably outraged that Hansu Kim, the owner of Flywheel, the app, and Flywheel, the taxi company, would actually kneecap 1,000s of drivers who rely on the app for part of their income, as well as stymie users who expect Flywheel to provide prompt service and, through this divisive act, traduce the industry in the public eye.


The following week, I wrote an addendum to make it abundantly clear that I was in no way trying to dissuade folks from using the app.

Despite my criticism, let me be perfectly clear:

Keep using Flywheel! Please!

As previously mentioned, Flywheel, or an app like it, is vital for the survival of the San Francisco taxi industry. That is what makes Hansu’s actions so deplorable. Not only is he threatening the livelihoods of taxi drivers, who are already struggling to survive in a market skewed to favor the competition, but he’s also jeopardizing the patronage of the small percentage of San Franciscans who still use cabs by limiting their access to prompt service.

I also pointed out that since removing a large number of drivers off the platform, there have been reports of longer-than-usual wait times. This was born out after Artur reconfigured my phone to continue accepting orders and the first guy I picked up in Noe Valley told me that the previous week he’d been forced to take Lyft three times because he couldn’t get a taxi through the Flywheel app.


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The latest news comes from Alex Sack, who, on April 25, recounts his conversation with co-owner of Flywheel Matt Gonzalez on his blog.

Oh, and this happened last week when I tried to go online:

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So what does the future hold for Flywheel? The San Francisco taxi industry?

Probably not what you’d expect…

Pimp my Taximeter

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As the prime movers behind the Uberization of San Francisco’s taxi industry, Flywheel, the taxi-hailing app, and Flywheel, the taxi company, seem so intent on emulating Uber that they’re even taking a page out of deposed CEO Travis Kalanick’s “Guide to Being a Complete Dirtbag.”

Last Wednesday, Flywheel sent out a message informing drivers not affiliated with one of their color scheme partners that we’ll no longer be receiving orders through the app. Unless, that is, we switch to one of the six color scheme partners.

Drivers were understandably outraged that Hansu Kim, the owner of Flywheel, the app, and Flywheel, the taxi company, would actually kneecap 1,000s of drivers who rely on the app for part of their income, as well as stymie users who expect Flywheel to provide prompt service and, through this divisive act, traduce the industry in the public eye.

As one driver put it: “Just when you think it can’t get any worse …”

But wait. It gets worse.

Since the color scheme partners listed in their first message all use Flywheel’s TaxiOS, instead of the traditional taximeter, most drivers assumed that was the proviso: Adopt their backend, app-based metering system and shoulder the massive costs associated with acquiring hundreds of smartphones to run the app, removing the old taximeter equipment and then paying them monthly service and network charges and a percentage of Flywheel orders, credit card-processing fees and dispatch orders routed through the app.

Displaying Uber-like greed, Flywheel seems to want a piece of all our action, on top of what we’re already giving the cab companies for leasing vehicles.

In return, we get the Flywheel orders back, for which we’d been paying them a cut of appropriately 13 percent.

Now that’s what you call a hornswoggling.

Read the rest here.

[photo by Christian Lewis]

Where Have All the Good Rides Gone?

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Without the fireworks and traffic along The Embarcadero, last Sunday night would have felt like any other weekend night. That it was New Year’s Eve only seemed incidental…

By midnight, I’ve already forgotten about the holiday. Walking into the Hilton on O’Farrell, I’m taken aback by the small but rowdy crowd in the bar/reception area counting backwards.

In the restroom, it hits me.

“Oh yeah,” I say aloud, my voice echoing off the tile.

I’m not alone though, as a flushing toilet drowns out the cheers from the lobby.

Back on the street, the doorman at the Nikko flags me and deposits an older couple in my backseat.

“What’s going on?” the gentleman in the leather suit asks me.

“It’s the New Year,” I reply.

“Yes.” He laughs. “But where are all the people?”

“Still home for the holidays?” I suggest.

They’d been at Bix, where they’ve celebrated New Year’s Eve for the past 20 years.

“We always book months ahead of time,” he says. “But this year, the bar was only half full.”

“It was very odd,” the woman adds. “We left early, thinking the traffic would be dreadful.”

Ahead of us, Market Street is wide open, hardly a vehicle on the road and barely a soul on the sidewalk.

Read the rest here.

[photo by Christian Lewis]

The SFMTA Makes Me Want to Smoke Crack

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“Well, there’s no point is crying over spilt cocaine,” I say with a nervous chuckle, even though no one else in the taxi seems to share my humor at the situation.

The guy up front looks at me aghast while the two in back unleash a salvo of invectives as they make a futile attempt to scrape up the loose powder.

This is obviously not the time for jokes.

Apologizing, I hit the dome light and look in the back. There’s white powder all over their pants, the seat around them, their shoes and the floorboard.

Uhhh… “That’s not good.”

Just moments before the three guys got into my taxi in a celebratory mood. They even asked permission before snorting their drugs, which was thoughtful, since most passengers never inquire if I have a policy on consuming illegal substances before doing blow in my backseat. At least once or twice a night I have to brush cocaine residue off the leather interior…

A few rides later, I comment on the previous coke explosion to another set of happy passengers.

“I really hope this isn’t going to influence the drug test I have to take next week,” I add, jokingly. “It would just be my luck that some of the airborne molecules permeated my mucus membranes.”

Read the entire column here.

[photo by Christian Lewis]

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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