Tag Archives: taxi drivers

A Loss in the Taxi Community

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Originally published in the S.F. Examiner on October 9, 2019.

Over the years I’ve documented the numerous hardships cab drivers face on the job. The financial struggles. The unjust competition. The traffic. The requisite long hours. The corrupt government agencies. The indignities of this growing belief that robots will one day do our job better.

Well, all that jive is a walk in the park compared to the constant threat of physical harm. And not just the aches and pains of being confined to a small space for hours on end, but the perpetual fear that something could go terribly wrong…

Spending as much time as we do roving the streets of San Francisco, we see more than your average commuter. The high number of accidents that occur throughout The City on a daily basis is terrifying. Not to mention all the near collisions.

I’m often surprised there aren’t more wrecks, giving how most people operate their vehicles. Drivers going the wrong way on one-way streets have become such a regular occurrence it even happens on the freeway.

Two weeks ago, some yahoo in a Tesla drove the wrong way across the entire length of the Bay Bridge through the toll plaza and onto I-880. How nobody was injured or killed along the way is an absolute miracle.

Unlike last Thursday morning, when an intoxicated woman made the fateful decision to drive home to Hillsborough from The City and somehow ended up on the northbound side of 101.

Apparently, several motorists saw her and called CHP. Before they were able to catch up with her, though, she came around the curve at the 280 split, where there is an incline as the roadway curves, limiting visibility, and barely missed an 18-wheeler, colliding head on with a National taxicab driven by Berkant Ahmed, who was transporting a couple from Chicago he’d just picked up at the airport.

In the horrifying aftermath, nobody survived.

Read the rest here.


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Ed Lee’s Legacy of Grievances

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“San Francisco is a white-collar crime,” the woman in the back of my taxi says, in a machine gun-like monologue. “And Ed Lee is — was — one of the main culprits. It was Ed Lee who sold us out to the tech companies, turning The City into a playground for the rich.”

It seems like the only notable conversations I have in my cab anymore that aren’t long winded jeremiads are the ones that don’t involve politics. Or millennials. Or tech. Or San Francisco.

“Don’t get me wrong though … I didn’t want Ed Lee dead. Just out of office. Or in jail. He should have gone down after the Shrimp Boy case …”

When I pull up to the woman’s building at Bush and Jones, she hands me a $20 bill.

“So yeah … you won’t see me wearing a black armband anytime soon,” she says, as if there’s a moral obligation to mourn the untimely death of the mayor.

Granted, over the past few weeks, there have been countless public memorials, but the majority of the people I talk to in my cab haven’t changed their tunes.

Despite Willie Brown’s observation in his column for the Chronicle last week:

Everyone on all sides of the political spectrum has something nice to say about the guy. Everyone, that is, except the taxi drivers. They still blame Ed for the flood of Uber and Lyft cars that are killing their livelihoods.

Turns out, taxi drivers aren’t the only San Francisco not mourning the death of Lee …

From Bush and Jones, I meander through the Tenderloin and end up at the scene of the crime.

Inside City Hall, several hundred Google developers are having their corporate holiday party. A typical frock-and-jock event, the guys wear the usual business casual, and the women are decked out in festive evening gowns. Slowly, in their high heels, they cascade down the steps, past the assemblage of bouquets and wreaths laid out in remembrance of Lee.

Outside, on the Polk Street side, an ad hoc cabstand is forming.

While the partygoers gather and wait with their phones out like Geiger counters, a bunch of Hackers gather outside our cabs to kvetch about how slow business has been this holiday season.

“Every year, it just gets worse …”

“I just don’t know what I’m going to do, man,” Icarus says. “I have to get out from under this debt. It’s killing me!”

Saddled with a $250,000 loan for a worthless medallion, Icarus works five days a week just to make the monthly payments.

“Am I supposed to declare bankruptcy over this and run my credit until I’m 60 years old?”

Things aren’t any better for Hester.

“I’d be doing so much better as a gate-and-gas driver.”

“Ed Lee ruined my life.”

“Maybe the Credit Union will step in and take these medallions back.”

Just days after Lee’s passing, KPIX ran a story about the San Francisco Credit Union suing The City over defaulted medallion loans because the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency did nothing to stop the illegal taxis that flooded the streets. And since The City is in the business of selling taxi medallions for $250,000, maintaining the value of those medallions would seem like a no-brainer.

Not so in Lee’s San Francisco, where, by his proclamation, every July 13 is Lyft Day.

It’s actions like these that helped feed the rumor, mostly spread among taxi drivers, that Lee’s daughter is an investor in Lyft, or works at Lyft or has some connection to the company. Whether or not that rumor is true doesn’t matter. The damage has been done. And there’s no going back now …

Read the full column here.

The Night We Drove Old Yellow Around

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It was just like the old days. Before the taxi industry went to shit. Back when people still called cab companies when they needed a ride. Especially on Friday nights, which is when the following aberration occurred.

Of course, as a driver in the post-Uber/Lyft world, the notion of taxis being in high demand is mostly abstract, based entirely on stories form drivers who were around then and still around now.

On this particular night, though, I got a taste of that bygone era…

It happened just after last call. During the transition period between 1:45 a.m. and 2:15 a.m., when most cabs are prowling the bars in the Mission, the Castro, Polk Street, SoMa and Union Square, while others begin forming ad hoc taxi stands outside DJ clubs like Public Works, the Great Northern, Audio, the EndUp and the Cat Club.

As I’m cruising down Valencia on my way to check out the line at Public Works, the dispatch radio comes alive.

Sometimes, I forget the two-way is even there, occasionally restarting the device to make sure it’s still functioning. There are nights when the only activity is drivers asking for radio checks. So I’m surprised to hear Jesse’s voice break the silence.

“Guys, there seem to be orders on the board,” he says. “I don’t know where they’re coming from, but I have phone numbers. If anyone wants to check them out …”

He starts listing off cross streets.

Since I’m only a few blocks away, I check in for Duboce and Valencia. I pull up outside Zeitgeist and ask for a callout.

“Hold on, 182.” After a short pause, Jesse responds, “On the way out.”

“Copy that.”

A few minutes later, a guy gets in the back of my cab, and I take him to Bernal Heights. I want to ask questions, figure out what’s going on with the sudden demand for taxis, but he isn’t chatty.

Read the rest here.

[photo by Christian Lewis]

Teatime for the insurrection

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The In-Between: Tea Talks

This was a very interesting project I participated in with a few other cab drivers. The idea, as conceived by creator Lexa Walsh, was to have people from diverging points of view get together over tea and hors d’oeuvres and talk things through.

The project gathers artists, writers, tech workers, “sharing economy” laborers (Uber and Lyft drivers, AirBnB hosts) and their critics (taxi drivers, tenants rights activists) together in a hospitable environment so each may share their positions in a safe yet open and critical dialogue. Each position will be respectfully held in the space.

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Besides taxi drivers, there were supposed to be a few Uber/Lyft drivers, but she wasn’t able to find any willing to participate. So we sat around the table, drinking tea and talking about the problems we face because of the onslaught of unregulated/untrained drivers.

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Some of the quotes were commemorated on plates that hung in the backroom gallery at Adobe after the talks.

 

Hell is other cab drivers

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I never thought having a child would help me deal with driving a taxi. But the shrieking of an infant reminds me of those impatient cab drivers who use their horns to communicate …

A few weeks ago, I’m lining up on Market Street waiting for the Orpheum to break.

Several cabs have already queued. I pull behind an unmarked SUV with its hazards on. I don’t know if it’s an Uber, so I keep my distance. A Flywheel cab gets behind me and starts blowing his horn. Several taps at first, but then he really lays on it.

Is he honking at me? I wonder. And if so, why?

Finally, the guy gets out walks to the front of my cab. He starts gesturing at the space between the SUV and me. In broken English, he tells me to pull up. I try to explain that I don’t know what the SUV is going to do and want to avoid getting stuck. But he keeps shouting at me, so I just move up grudgingly.

He bellyaches all the way back to his cab.

A few minutes later, the show lets out, and people start getting in cabs.

The Flywheel driver, who doesn’t seem to know how to work the theaters, starts blowing his horn again and trying to get around me on the left. I see people get into the taxis in front of the SUV, which, predictably, doesn’t move. As a couple heads for my cab, the Flywheel is angled on my left so that when a lady tries to get into his cab, he’s too far away and she gets into the Fog City behind him.

I hit reverse to move around the SUV to escape the melee.

When it comes to an 8-month-old, screaming pretty much gets the desired result. According to baby experts, she doesn’t understand “No!” yet and, well, we really don’t want our neighbors to hate us too much. For taxi drivers who use their horns to communicate, though, it doesn’t always pay…

Read the rest here.

The way of the taxi stand

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My column for the Examiner this week is about the Hyatt Regency taxi stand, more daytime observations and a near collision with a BMW.

Usually, the EC5 cabstand moves at a decent clip. Besides the Regency and Embarcadero Centers, you get people hopping off BART and from the Ferry Building, as well as various randos.

But that’s the way of the taxi stand.

One second it’s moving, the next you’re just watching the world stream past.

After advancing two spaces, an Uber pulls over next to me. Instead of proceeding to the driveway that leads to the front of the hotel, a family of four disembarks right in the middle of Drumm Street. The driver, working hard for those five-star ratings, helps set their suitcases on the asphalt. Says goodbye and drives off. The tribe of fresh-faced tourists, slightly discombobulated, manages to gather their belongings and haul them between the line of taxis, across a jam-packed sidewalk and the driveway.

This is a common scenario at most hotels these days. As soon as visitors enter SFO, they are accosted with advertisements for Uber and Lyft, which both offer $50 in free credit for new users. Why not take advantage of an offer like that?

They’ve no doubt heard of Uber. Now they can experience it firsthand and tell their friends and family back home about the “future of transportation.”

Plus, it’s $20 from the airport into the city, which is cheaper than a cab, cheaper than BART, cheaper that Super Shuttle and almost cheaper than the bus. They still have more free rides to take. And hey… if Mom downloaded the app on her phone at the airport, can Dad also download the app and get $50 in credit? Sure he can. All the kids too!

So now tourists are taking Ubers and Lyfts instead of taxis. But what kind of experience are they having if their drivers come from Sacramento or out of state and have no clue how to assist them navigate The City? They’re essentially tourists themselves. Talk about the blind leading the naked.

And when it comes to hotels, there are many reasons why you rely on doormen. Making sure guests have — at least — the opportunity to show some class is one. Preventing fuckups is another.

A few nights back, while languishing in the Fairmont taxi stand, I saw a girl get her fingers caught in the door of a Lyft car. As her howls echoed off the façade of the luxury hotel, the clueless driver began pulling away. Her friends had to bang on the side of his car to make him stop…

Read the rest here.

[photo by Irina Dessaint]

The Luck of Juneaux

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Juneaux is the most fastidious taxi driver I know.

His cab is always spotless, inside and out. He focuses on superior customer service and, in the process, has an uncanny ability to twist fortune in his favor.

I call it “The Luck of Juneaux.”

A few weeks ago, I wake up to a salvo of texts that began at midnight.

“I’m so fucked,” Juneaux writes. “I accidentally overslept and now I only have six hours to make my nut. I’m going to end up hanging a gate.”

After several texts describing the hopelessness of the situation, his tone changes drastically.

“Dude! You’ll never believe what just happened …”

Around 3 a.m., he picks up a guy who’s lost his Lexus somewhere in SoMa and has Juneaux drive him around while he clicks his key remote. An hour later, the meter is at $34.75, and the guy realizes it’s a lost cause.

“So, he asks me, ‘Can you drive me home?’ Sure. Where’s home? ‘Half Moon Bay.’”

His good fortune doesn’t stop there. Back in The City, he gets a timed SFO through Flywheel.

His final text reads: “After gate, gas and tip, I’m $146 in the black. Not bad for starting my shift six hours late.”

While Juneaux is dubious of its veracity, I have complete faith in The Luck. So much so, I’m convinced it’s even transferable …

Read the rest of the column here.

Or click the image below for the newsprint version (with no pop-up ads):

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[photo by Trevor Johnson]

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]

At 2 a.m., there’s only one Jack in the Box

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“Taxi!”

It’s been 20 minutes since the bars let out, and I’m just driving around empty. My eye twitches as I try to locate the source of the call reverberating down Sutter Street. I’m exhausted. Since my ten week old has already started teething, sleep is now an abstract concept.

“Taxi!”

Cater-corner on Powell, a woman is waving. As soon as I acknowledge her, she barges into traffic, prompting me to stop in the crosswalk behind a police cruiser outside Lori’s.

“It’s fucking impossible to get a cab down here,” she says after climbing into my backseat. “Now… where can I get some food?”

“Well, there’s —” I start to take off, but miscalculate the distance between my front end and the back of the police cruiser. Even though it’s just a tap, the cop car jolts forward. My heart jumps out of my chest.

“Anywhere but fucking Lori’s,” the woman snaps.

“Sure…” Fortunately, the cop car is empty. Seizing the lucky break, I drive away. “What about Cafe Mason? Grubstake?”

“Fuck all that. Take me to Jack in the Box.”

As I turn onto Mason, I check my rearview and see a black-and-white SUV make an illegal left off Powell. Oh shit! Did they see anything? My chest starts pounding again.

Meanwhile, the woman is yelling into her phone: “I’m in a fucking taxi! Go to Jack in the Box. Tell your driver… What the fuck do you mean, ‘which one?’ There’s only one!” She hangs up. “Which Jack in the Box … You gotta be fucking kidding me.”

“There’s one on Bayshore and—”

“And one in Bakersfield, too,” she says brusquely, in that distinctive Frisco accent: all daggers, dripping with sarcasm. “Not much good it does us seeing as how we live in Pac-fucking-Heights.”

“Fair enough.” I keep checking my rearview for flashing lights, navigating the congestion of cars and pedestrians in front of Ruby Skye. I pull over next to Jack in the Box, where the sidewalk is teeming with drunken revelers, spectators and hustlers.

“You’ll wait for me, right?” the woman asks, though it doesn’t feel like much of a request.

“Sure.” I’m still preoccupied with justifying my tap and run … It’s not like the cruiser was in pristine condition. If there’s one fleet in The City more rickety than National/Vets, it’s the San Francisco Police Department.

As soon as she walks away, a guy with a pizza box tries to get in my cab.

“I’m waiting for someone,” I tell him nicely through the window. “Grab another one.”

I point towards the row of cabs streaming by on Geary with top lights blazing.

Just then, Hester pulls up in Metro 1557. It looks like he has a load but when the guy goes to his window, he hesitates and wanders back towards me, confused.

“There’s another cab!” I shout as a Flywheel Taxi roll past. “Put your hand out!”

“They’re not stopping,” he complains.

“That’s one’s not a cab. Wait for a second.”

A few seconds later, Hester gets out of his cab and peers into the windows of Jack in the Box.

I join him. “What’s up?”

“I just picked up this girl from New Century who tried to pass a fake C-note. I told her no way, and she got uppity. Said she was going into Jack in the Box to break it and prove me wrong. Left a jacket as collateral. Claimed it was worth $200, but it’s from The Gap.”

“Is she in there now?”

“Nah, she’s probably long gone.”

“So why didn’t you take that guy?” I gesture towards the guy who’s still in the street trying to flag down random cars.

“Him? He’s going to the fucking Marriott.”

“On Sutter?”

“Two blocks. Fuck him.”

“Yeah, fuck him.”

Read the rest in the condensed version here.

[image by Christian Lewis]

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