Tag Archives: san francisco taxi

Stranger than Fiction

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This week’s I Drive S.F. column for the S.F. Examiner is about the other side of San Francisco, the one you don’t see from an Uber/Lyft – the taxi side of The City … 

“Since they’re spoon-fed ride requests, Uber/Lyft drivers don’t have to troll the streets of the Tenderloin at 1 a.m. looking for junkies running late meet up with their dealers before they turn into pumpkins … 

“During my eleven months driving for Uber and Lyft, most of what I documented were studies in vapid entitlement, the occasional comedy of errors due to a technical glitch and jeremiads about the exploitative nature of the business model.

“Once in a taxi, though, things went into overdrive and I charged headlong into the unknown, fueled by a guileless enthusiasm tinged with fear and a thrash metal soundtrack. Each shift came with a variety of misadventures, discoveries and altercations. All I had to do was write it down.

“Although only some of the stories made it into the column, as many encounters weren’t – and still aren’t – suitable for the general reading public. The really wild rides are reserved for the zines, where I have more freedom to describe the sordid and ribald aspects of driving a taxi in San Francisco. But I still have to be careful what’s divulged, to not risk losing my A-card …” 

Read the whole thing 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…

A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall

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When it’s raining, people like to complain. As if, once the waterworks start, you can’t hold back the deluge …

Heading to the Dogpatch down 16th Street, I take full advantage of the new taxi/bus lanes, while the girl behind me talks about growing up in San Francisco.

“I remember being a kid and going to my grandparents’ house,” she says. “Right where you’re taking me now. 16th was a completely different street back then. My grandfather built the house right after the earthquake and fire in 1906. Over the years, the area got worse, but he never left. Since then, it’s all changed, and I often wonder what he would think of what’s become of this neighborhood …”

She takes a long pause. It’s hard to know what to say. As the windshield wipers scrape across the glass, I look around at the ultramodern condos, the state-of-the-art UCSF Medical Center and children’s hospital and, looming in the distance, the menacing shell of the new Warriors stadium in mid-construction.

What do you say about unbridled progress?

“I’m sure he would have hated it,” she asserts.

Read the rest here.

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]

A Hell Ride into the Peninsula

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This week’s column for the S.F. Examiner is about a long ride, the green hell of suburbia, blowjobs, fast food and the semantics of meat when coupons are involved… 

Before I’m even on the Central Freeway, he asks if he can suck my dick. I laugh it off, but he persists. Vehemently. No matter how many times I turn down his offer to suck my dick and try to change the subject, he doesn’t let up. Over and over, all the way down the 101.

“I just know you’re going to let me suck your dick…”

“Uhm, no.”

“Then shut up,” he says. “Your voice is turning me on.”

I shut up. Then he asks me a random question and returns to the topic of sucking my dick. When I reject his advances for the umpteenth time, he tells me to shut up again.

“Stop asking me questions then!” I shout.

Read the rest here.

 

Being at the right place at the right time…

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It’s a quiet night. I’m close to my nut, but still in the red at 10 p.m. After dropping off near Telegraph Hill, I meander through the Wharf and North Beach, fighting off competing taxi drivers who try to usurp my pole position down Columbus. At Pacific, I cut over to Powell, for no other reason than I don’t usually take Powell.

At Clay Street, a man and a woman with suitcases flag me. I pop the trunk. Since I’m blocking traffic, I stay behind the wheel and let the man do the heavy lifting.

I’ve long since given up the notion that luggage means an airport ride, so I’m not surprised when the woman asks, out of breath, “Can you take us to 100 California?”

Read the rest of this week’s column for the S.F. Examiner here.

Hope is Better than Nothing: A Late Night Larry Story

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This week’s column for the S.F. Examiner:

“San Francisco is always changing. So are we.”

While I’m idling in gridlocked traffic on Third Street, trying to get my fare to the St. Francis, I read the advertisement on the wooden barricades shielding the construction at Moscone Center. The statement feels more like a threat than the typical “pardon our dust as we make improvements” disclaimer.

It’s hard not to feel uptight when “change” is used in the same sentence as “San Francisco.”

And yet, you can almost watch The City change before your very eyes — like the weather, when the fog rolls in on a sunny day and wraps itself around the top of the Pyramid like King Kong, or you turn a corner and the wind blows so cold you can’t even remember how it feels to be warm…

If you want to live in San Francisco, you have to accept the flux. And those city dwellers who want the urban life and end up displaced by all this change should just accept inevitability and move along, right?

That’s what an advertisement like the one at Moscone Center seems to be saying. Or at least that’s how it feels in a cab yard, after a long shift, when we’re standing around a dormant barbeque grill trying to make sense of what’s become of the taxi industry.

“I still believe things will turn around,” Colin says.

“Something’s gotta give,” Juneaux points out.

“Ah, fuck this… We’re all doomed,” Jesse decrees as he tosses his cigarette and returns to the office.

“It does feel rather hopeless,” I admit.

“Speaking of hope,” says Late Night Larry. “Have I told you guys the one about the male hooker and the missing $100 bill?”

No one turns down a story from Larry …

Read Larry’s story here.

NIGHT ON EARTH