Death and Taxis

Why can't Hattie Neelon get to a funeral? Well, have you ever tried to get a cab in S.F.?

Taxi drivers say increasing the number of medallions would reduce the quality and decorousness of drivers on San Francisco streets. They say that if there were more medallions, competition among drivers for fares would cause cabbies to drive recklessly.

For most readers, it's not necessary to point out the hilariousness of these assertions. For the rest, I'll recall the driver who, as I sat in the back seat, gunned his engine repeatedly at a woman in a crosswalk, shouting, "Run! Run! C'mon, run!" He wanted to see her breasts bounce.

Or I'll direct you to the SF Weekly guest column written by a cracker-moron cabbie saying his pals consider cyclists on the street "hamburger."

Or I'll describe the dozens of cabbies who've snarled at me when I have meekly requested, from the passenger's seat, that they attempt not to run down pedestrians while I'm in the car.

You want more examples of the current decorousness of San Francisco cabbies? I've got plenty I can send you. My e-mail address is at the bottom of this column.

The cab companies claim to favor raising limits on the number of medallions issued. Don't let them fool you. Their very reason for existence would be threatened if the city increased the number of taxis allowed on the streets to anywhere near a useful level.

The role of the taxi company as a permit brokerage/leasing agency would become almost meaningless, if anyone who wanted a taxi permit could get it for just $227. A centralized, neutral citywide dispatch system, meanwhile, would remove the taxi companies' other reason to exist. Under such a system -- which the Taxi Commission is considering right now, but doesn't seem likely to authorize -- customers would call the citywide dispatcher (or -- gasp! -- contact the dispatcher by Internet). A call would go to all taxis in the city, rather than the few controlled by a given company, as is the case now.

So why not dramatically reduce the backlog of medallion requests, perhaps by 1,000 or so? And after we put another 1,000 cabs on city streets, why not construct a neutral, citywide dispatch system, so more cabs would have the opportunity to answer each call? This could be done without a single change in city laws, without a single ballot measure.

This is not an implausible daydream. I ran it by the Board of Supervisors' resident taxi expert, Gavin Newsom: "If I were king, if I were mayor, I'd do that in seconds flat," he said. During the past three years, Newsom has helped increase the number of medallions by 400, against lobbying by the drivers. And in an ideal world, he said, "I'd massively increase the number of taxicabs, focusing on all the districts. I'd work aggressively to move away from independent contractor's status [for drivers]."

The Taxi Commission has the power each year to increase the number of medallions by whatever number it deems necessary. But last year supposed "rider advocate" Chris Dittenhafer proposed the number be increased by only 100 for all of the year 2000. Why so few?

"That's what the Taxi Task Force recommended," Dittenhafer offered by way of explanation.

That's what the mayor's Taxi Task Force recommended. And Dittenhafer hopes to become the mayor's supervisorial candidate. Though I badgered him for nearly an hour (I urge you to try this some time for fun), he refused to express a single specific opinion about issues affecting the city, apparently in hopes he would not inadvertently contradict something the mayor might later say.

And so it goes: A new ballot initiative, cynically supported by city supervisors who are well aware of the lobbying power of Barnes, Mosher, Whitehurst & Partners, will be falsely promoted as a solution to this city's horrid taxi problem. If the ballot measure fails, which it should, taxi drivers will seize the political momentum to fight against a badly needed increase in the number of city permits issued.

And Hattie Neelon will continue to call taxicabs every Sunday, and every time there's a funeral for a friend. And she will wait. And far too often she will end up going back to bed.

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