[Part Two of a preliminary discussion between Driver 8, a former taxi driver turned Lyft driver, and Kelly Dessaint, former Lyft driver turned taxi driver, moderated by Lauren Smiley in November 2015, before the Lyft vs. Taxi Thunderdome live debate on Backchannel. Read the backstory here.]
Lauren: Kelly, you mentioned that some other professions associated with taxis are also feeling the pinch from the ride of Uber and Lyft. Like hotel doormen. Can you explain that?
Kelly: I’ve heard that doormen are making less because they’re not putting as many people into cabs anymore and receiving the customary tips for their services. I think the same situation would be happening to valets at restaurants and clubs. If people are taking Uber and Lyft to go out and not driving their own cars anymore (I guess this would be more of a reality in cities like Los Angeles), there’s less demand for valets. Or anywhere that usually has someone to open doors, park cars and flag down taxis for customers and then receive tips in return.
Driver 8: I don’t know that I agree with this contention. Doormen in SF were notorious for extorting money from cabbies, and limo drivers too. There were large hotels in the city that I, and many other taxi drivers, avoided because we refused to pay the required bribe to the doormen for rides to the airport. As I alluded to as in one of my articles, should we be concerned about doormen getting tips for hailing taxis – something any hotel guest could do for themselves – or, should we be concerned about providing more reliable, more efficient, less expensive, and (arguably) more pleasant transportation to those hotel guests? Should we not celebrate the fact that doormen no longer have the ability to extort money from working-class cab drivers?
In fact, I am making more as a Lyft driver than I did as a cab driver, and that is after taking every possible expense I incur into account. Further, the non-financial improvements to my working conditions and job satisfaction would still make me choose it over driving a taxi, even if it did mean earning a little less. Regardless, should we be more concerned about the amount of money cab drivers couldbe making if we were to return to the old days, when getting a cab in San Francisco could be an impossible proposition, when service levels were unsatisfactory (to be kind), and when demand far outstripped supply – artificially constrained by government regulation? Or, should we be more concerned with providing efficient, safe, reliable, and affordable transportation, and allow drivers to make their own determination as to whether or not the earning potential is worth doing the job for? If not, no one is forcing them to be an Uber or Lyft driver. Meanwhile, can the same be said of taxi medallion owners, when the city is making it impossible for them to sell their medallions, and exit the taxi business?
Kelly: I don’t feel much pity for the doormen either. And as Uber became to dominate more of the market, they would laugh at the cab drivers. But now they can’t extort as much money from cab drivers for airport rides because people are using Uber, so they’re making less. Does it bother me? A little. Think of Tom Sweeney, the doorman at the Sir Francis Drake, who has been there for forty years. Or the bearded guy at the St. Francis who runs that cabstand like a general. There are and will continue to be causalities as these new technologies develop and make positions obsolete.
Before Uber and Lyft, cab drivers were able to have middle class lives and, through the medallion system (at least under Prop K), have a pension for when they are no longer able to drive. I know many cab drivers who own homes – some more than one – because of cab driving. I know taxi drivers who put their spouses and children through college… taxi drivers who have traveled the world. All because of cab driving. Can you imagine anyone who doesn’t already have those opportunities being able to do that with Uber and Lyft driving?
And while we’re on the subject, let’s not forget that cab drivers know more about the city and its streets than most people. I take great pride in being able to transport tourists around the city and offer historical facts and anecdotes about the places we drive past. Cab drivers who have been at this 20 to 30 years know the city like the back of their hands, and they collect a vast array of fascinating stories that add to the mythology of a great city like San Francisco. San Francisco will lose more than just a formally lucrative form of employment if Uber and Lyft take over. Because the old time cab drivers won’t go to Uber and Lyft. They’ll leave the business and take their vast knowledge and experience (and amazing stories) with them, instead of passing it down to new drivers who can share it with their passengers and on and on…
THE ILLUSION OF SAFETY
Lauren: Driver 8, you’ve mentioned that you feel safer in Lyft than you did in a cab. But at the same time, you had a crazy episode of a Lyft passenger beating you and stealing your phone. How do you reconcile those two things?
Driver 8: If something nefarious were to occur in a Lyft, or an Uber, there is a record of everything – name, date, time, home address, phone number, GPS location, etc. If something happens, the police know exactly what door to go knock on in order to make an arrest – this goes for drivers and passengers. Plus, the driver isn’t carrying a thick wad of cash in his pocket, making him a target for anyone in desperate need of some quick cash. I believe these are huge deterrents, which give me peace and comfort when I’m working.
In a taxi, however, passengers are predominantly anonymous. They may call from a payphone, or flag you from the shadows – you have no idea who you’re letting into your car with you – and I’ve ended up with plenty of threatening taxi passengers over the years. A few times, I was fairly certain no one would ever see me again. Everyone knows that cab drivers are carrying cash money, and I’ve known a few that were even robbed on their way home after their shift. Even the cameras in all SF taxis do nothing to protect the passenger if they fail to note the cab number, which no one ever does. When driving a taxi, I was always aware of the dangers, and was always on guard.
You mentioned the incident where, ironically, I was assaulted and robbed of my iPhone during a Lyft ride. It’s important to note that this was not done by the passenger ordering the Lyft, but by someone who was traveling with him. But, the thing is, bad things can happen anywhere: at home, on the bus, at work, in the park, in a bar, etc. It’s an unfortunate fact that we are never 100% safe, should someone decide to do harm to us. However, we can make choices that limit the potential for harm, and I feel the choice to be a Lyft driver reduces that likelihood much more so than choosing to drive a taxicab.
Kelly: A passenger can use a fake account or steal someone else’s phone. Nothing is ever truly safe while driving for hire. It’s an inherently dangerous profession. And yeah, I never thought twice about who I was picking up while driving for Uber and Lyft. (Remember when it was called peer-to-peer transportation?)
As I transitioned into taxi, I naturally worried about being robbed or assaulted. But I was trained in taxi school how to deal with certain situations (like getting out of the car), keeping a spare wallet to give to a potential robber and I’ve had enough veteran cab drivers tell me how rare it is these days for drivers to get robbed. Even though it still happens. A fellow driver at National was on the news several months back when he was assaulted by a passenger with a padlock. Around that time, there were other instances of attacks on cab drivers in the news…
I have picked up passengers that other drivers wouldn’t pick up and so far – knock on wood – I haven’t had any problems. But part of being a cab driver is knowing how to deal with any situation that may arise. I like that about the job. I don’t fear the unknown and embrace the challenge. When a passenger gives me the heebie-jeebies, I just start talking. I try to figure out what the situation is and what’s going on in their head. People can walk into a liquor store, rob the place, shoot the cashier and, even with video, never get caught. Like you said, bad things can happen anywhere. But I feel safer knowing my dispatcher is on the other end of the radio and he can summon help immediately and that there are other drivers on the road who have my back.
Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Part Four | Part Five
[Illustration by David Foldvari]