[Part Three 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.]
TRANSPORTATION AS A PUBLIC SERVICE
Lauren: Kelly, will you share a couple of the fertile fishing holes for taxi fares in the Uberscape?
Kelly: There certainly aren’t many. The Opera House has a designated driveway for cabs, which encourages drivers to line up for guaranteed fares. The hotels in Union Square have designated cabstands. Pier 39. Anything involving tourists. The Caltrain station is good, although Uber and Lyft cars also dominate there. Driver 8 pointed out in his last Medium post that he used to be able to park in front of the Rickshaw Stop and get fares. Then, with Uber and Lyft, he was passed up. I have never once picked up a fare at the Rickshaw Stop in a cab. Never. Even though I drive past it multiple times a night as I head to Soma from points west. When I drove for Uber and Lyft, though, I dropped off and picked up there constantly. It amazes me just how many places there are that I used to regularly work as an Uber/Lyft driver but never deal with anymore now, as a cab driver. Places like the Rickshaw Stop, Urban Putt, DNA, Dear Mom, Double Dutch, Lucky 13, Blondies, Zeitgeist… There are so many…
Unlike Uber and Lyft, though, we are able to accept paratransit cards and work with the disabled. My company, National, has dedicated accounts at numerous financial and law firms in the Financial… After two years of driving, one of those years for Uber and Lyft and one year in taxis, I see that it’s the young people who are taking advantage of Uber and Lyft. Most don’t even know how to hail a cab. I often think: “Are you saying ‘Hi’ or do you want a ride?” Professionals and people who really need to be somewhere are still taking cabs. If you’re just going out to party, who cares how you get there and back? At 2am? 3am? Who even remembers the next morning?
Driver 8: I’m so glad you brought up paratransit, and the disabled, as this was something that deeply troubled me in my final days in the cab business. I became seriously disenchanted and disgusted watching taxi after taxi refuse to pick up elderly passengers attempting to use their paratransit cards (due to the 10% tip maximum), and of driving past people on crutches, or in collapsible wheelchairs, because of the time they’d lose in assisting those passengers in and out of the cab. Sure – now that so few calls come into dispatch and there are so few flags on the street – drivers have no choice but to rely upon these fares to make a living. If paratransit and disabled people are now receiving better service, they have Uber to thank.
That’s only the half of it. Taxi companies and the MTA just love to blast the TNCs for not having ramp vans (wheelchair accessible vans) like they do. Yet, those vans are almost exclusively used for airport runs, due to their extra space for luggage. Work in a dispatch office as I did, and you will hear the passengers requiring ramp vans being told that none are available because they’re all at the airport, or they aren’t even on the street. You’ll regularly hear these customers calling back after waiting for one or two hours, and still not having been picked up. You’ll hear exacerbated dispatchers instructing them to try calling Yellow, or Luxor, because they do not have, or cannot get, a ramp driver to pick them up.
These ramp (wheelchair accessible) vans end up being leased out at a discount to drivers who don’t have the required certification to actually transport wheelchair passengers – meaning they aren’t allowed to pick these disabled passengers even if they wanted to! Despite their higher gas costs – with no additional seating capacity – and their louder, rougher ride (due to the wheelchair ramp modifications), some cab drivers will rent the ramp vans, and their corresponding ramp taxi medallions, in order to get a taxi to drive at a discounted rate. Cab companies will offer these discounts, just to get the ramp vans rented, and out on the street. Many taxi companies have simply returned their special ramp van medallions to the city because they cannot get anyone to drive the ramp vans. It’s disgusting.
Still, I don’t blame the cab companies or the drivers. I blame the city for foisting this important service onto the for-profit taxi companies, and upon the drivers who are then expected to sacrifice earning potential, and to serve this community out of the sheer goodness of their hearts. It’s an incredibly disgraceful and shameful shirking of responsibility on the part of the city, and the MTA.
While we’re on this topic, I’d add that the taxi system also allows for discrimination against minorities, gays, and people with service animals – all of whom have been historically and routinely refused service by many San Francisco taxi drivers. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve witnessed a black man, in a suit and tie, trying to flag a cab in the financial district, only to be passed up by a torrent of empty taxis. I can’t tell you how many gay men have recounted stories to me of being kicked out of cabs – in San Francisco!– because of their sexuality. This is a HUGE reason for my preference to drive for Lyft: the combination of driver ratings, acceptance rate requirements, and accountability, ensure that drivers engaging in this type of behavior will be deactivated, not just quickly, but in real time. Whereas, in Kelly’s own words, cabbies don’t have to worry about providing adequate service to customers except to get a tip.
Kelly: Since I went to Ruach Graffis’s taxi school, who is wheelchair-bound herself, you can imagine how much of the class was devoted to studying the ADA. I went into cab driving knowing how important it is to service passengers in need. The way I looked at it, I’d been driving drunks who were pretty much incapacitated for Uber, so the idea of helping people with real problems seemed more rewarding.
I know ramp vans go to the airport because they get to bypass other cabs in line when there are too many suitcases to fit into a regular sedan. It also seems weird to see them trolling Polk Street on a Friday night looking for fares. But I rarely see the disabled left on the side of the road. In fact, I see people in wheelchairs picked up all the time. I went into cab driving with the belief that it is a public utility and it’s my duty to transport the public.
As a night driver, I don’t deal with paratransit as much, but I gladly take paratransit passengers without hesitation.
A few months back, I was on a panel during Labor Fest with a disabled activist who discussed how hard it is to get a taxi to pick him up at his house. He talked about how long he had to wait and how he tried to get the phone numbers of drivers he trusted, only to have the drivers leave the business and being forced to secure another reliable driver. But Uber and Lyft don’t make things any better for the disabled. They don’t have any ramp vehicles at all, much less trained drivers to run them and deal with the disabled.
The changes need to be made through the SFMTA, not abandoned for this new technology that leaves more people out of the equation than just the disabled, i.e., poor people without credit cards and those not willing to have a third-party company have access to their personal details.
What about the people who think Uber is deplorable? The people who want trained drivers, licensed by the city? What happens to those customers if the taxi system is abolished, and Uber and Lyft are the only game in town?
As far as cab drivers refusing service to passengers, you should search “Uber Reviews” on Twitter. Uber is no better. People suck, pure and simple. And as far as not providing service past the point of a good tip: I like big tips. I like making money. So I provide great service. And most of the cab drivers I talk to feel the same way.
The fact is, there is just as much potential for bad service with Uber and Lyft as there is with taxi. Because even if they’re deactivated in real time, there are dozens and dozens of new drivers, just as untrained and biased, to replace them on the conveyor belt of Uber and Lyft driving…
Driver 8: You (and I, when I drove a taxi) are an exception to the rule. You must know that. Yes, I have heard equally deplorable stories about Uber drivers (for one, the Uber driver who would only transport a woman’s service dog in the trunk of his car!). My point is that using the ADA, paratransit, and wheelchair accessible vehicles as an argument is sheer hypocrisy on the part of the San Francisco MTA. But, more to your point about leaving people behind, I recently heard an alarming statistic about the digital divide here, in San Francisco of all places! On one hand, I do worry about people who may not have a smartphone, and cannot access a TNC as a result. However, I wonder if these same people have the ability to pay for a taxi? There is no reason (other than further harm to the cab business) why Uber and Lyft could not be allowed and/or required to accept paratransit cards – city subsidized method of payment for transportation – just as taxis do. Still, that leaves the problem of access, which, I agree, needs to be addressed.
Kelly: The decision to not have a smartphone comes down to more than just affordability, since there are programs that give them out for free to people with low incomes. I know a few cab drivers who took advantage of the program. Ultimately, people should have the choice on whether to add technology to their life. And there are older people who have a hard time adjusting to new technology. As I’ve said before, the day when an elderly couple from Missouri flies into San Francisco and have to purchase a smartphone as well as download an app to get a ride into the city is the day we can officially say this city has lost its soul.
It also has to be acknowledged that solving the transportation problems in this city is not easy. It’s never been. Prior to the 1940s, three different companies ran the streetcars on Market before a measure was written to incorporate them into one city held company to make them run better. This is the beginning of the MTA. And since then, things have only become more complicated. In San Francisco, there are always going to be transportation problems because of how the city was designed. Nobody seems to have any solutions that solve all the problems.