Death and Taxis

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

On the morning of Sunday, July 2, Hattie Neelon dressed for church, as always. Kidney problems have slowed her, but Neelon is still an officer of the Missionary Temple Christian Methodist Episcopal Church, and an important part of her life is focused there. So she called a cab, got ready, and waited in her Western Addition home. But the cab never came. Saddened, Neelon, who is 72 years old, went back to bed.

In June, she called a taxi to attend a memorial service for Floydine Cooks. But that taxi never arrived, either. So Neelon couldn't attend the memorial.

"We had worked in church together," recalls Neelon. "That kind of hurt, because I didn't get to say goodbye."

Bad taxi service is a running joke among visitors to San Francisco; transvestite comedienne Dame Edna, for one, quipped about the city's "five-taxi fleet" during her run at Theater on the Square. In these tales, abysmal S.F. taxi service is described like the cold Sunset District fog: a familiar nuisance, inevitable yet benign.

But San Francisco's lousy taxi system, the fruit of a Byzantine regulatory framework born of political patronage, cronyism, and piles upon piles of campaign cash, harms the public more deeply than most people recognize. Taxis are, in fact, a vital segment of the city's transportation system. In combination with mass transit, the proper number of cabs could lessen congestion, reduce the need for car ownership, and generally make the city more livable.

If not for the monied interests at stake, our taxi deficit -- there is an obvious demand for hundreds upon hundreds more cabs -- could be rectified with a pen's stroke. Basically, the city commission that regulates taxis just needs to authorize hundreds upon hundreds of new permits, or medallions, to cab drivers, and thereby put hundreds upon hundreds of additional taxis on the street. But a direct, obvious solution does not appear to be in the cards. Demagoguery does.

On the first Tuesday evening in August, City Hall's Hearing Room 400 was packed with dozens of people from far-flung sections of the city. They had been trucked in to speak in front of the San Francisco Taxi Commission in protest against the lack of taxicabs in San Francisco. Their testimony pushed the meeting past midnight.

It was an odd display, given that there was nothing on the commission's agenda even remotely related to increasing the number of taxis in the city. But a careful survey of the hearing room provided a simple explanation for the show; it was written in the nervous, elusive gaze of Taxi Commission member Chris Dittenhafer, a blond-haired striver considered, in some circles, to be the taxicab companies' man at City Hall.

Dittenhafer had finished off the previous week with an unabashed grab for "soft" political money that was so brazen and unethical as to be astounding, even by San Francisco standards. He had taken thousands of dollars from taxi companies -- which, as a city taxi commissioner, he is entrusted by the public to regulate -- to print a glossy flier that ambiguously called upon voters to "change the outdated laws" governing taxis, and that posited Dittenhafer himself as a champion of neighborhood taxi riders. Dittenhafer just happens to be running this fall for a Board of Supervisors seat in District 6.

Three days later, minutes before the deadline for filing ballot initiatives for the fall election, the city's major cab companies and seven supervisors joined to put a taxi reform measure on the ballot. The measure would change laws regarding taxis in perhaps -- just perhaps -- the very ways that Dittenhafer's flier advocated.

Chris Dittenhafer, described by some as Willie Brown's man in the District 6 race, doesn't come across as the sharpest pencil in the box. He either misunderstands, or pretends to misunderstand, simple questions. His responses are elliptical, but artlessly so. Hi taxi-flier stunt may be the most ham-handed example of machine-politics money-grubbing in recent memory. He brazenly took political money from an industry he is charged with regulating, and brazenly (if indirectly) helped the industry promote an initiative that would make the industry's life easier.

And then he had the brass to present himself as a champion of the people.

Dittenhafer's bold stupidity could be seen as just another example of the city government's habit of populating important posts with rattle-brained patsies. But there is another, much more polished side to this fall's taxicab initiative.

The initiative, a change to 1978's Proposition K, is really an attempt to put taxi medallions in the hands of taxi companies, without accomplishing anything to significantly improve taxi service in the city. In the city's taxi regulation scheme, for the past 22 years only taxi drivers have been able to own medallions, which confer the right to operate a taxi. To make their money, taxi companies have had to "rent" the medallions from the drivers, and then rent them again, to other drivers. The taxi companies have long resented the cost of renting medallions from drivers, and have long sought the ability to own the medallions directly.

Rather than stating that the taxi company-sponsored initiative on this November's ballot is just the latest taxi company attempt to gain the right to hoard permits, the initiative is sneaky. The initiative adds new, extremely vague language to existing taxi law; this new language would allow for an interpretationthat could, in turn, allow corporate permits, and higher taxi company profits.

If the taxi initiative is the most obscure, confusing, inconclusive measure on the November ballot -- and it is -- the initiative will almost certainly be backed by the slickest ad campaign of the election season. According to a letter that the DeSoto Cab Co. sent to taxi drivers, nine taxi companies are planning to pay $500,000 to well-connected lobbyists Barnes, Mosher, Whitehurst & Partners to craft the campaign.

It will likely be a brilliant campaign, backing an initiative that purports to create a taxi riders' bill of rights, when it really just increases the profit potential of a bunch of taxi companies that have shown almost no interest whatever in anything about their customers, save for their customers' money. It's a mean piece of sentiment-milking, money-grabbing fraud, and San Franciscans should vote it down.

In opposing November's taxi referendum, I have taken the same position as most all of San Francisco's taxi drivers. They cherish their driver-only permits, and they'd hate to see the taxi companies push their way into the line to get new medallions.

But please don't get me wrong. At heart, the core interest of taxi drivers -- keeping the number of taxis on San Francisco streets as low as possible -- lies squarely against the public good. And in this, the drivers should be cut off at the knees.

For a city that claims to be the heartland of the new digital economy, San Francisco has a mighty primitive way of getting its high-tech entrepreneurs to appointments with venture capitalists.

When you pick up a phone to reserve a cab here, you're calling a dispatcher who has no formal employment relationship whatsoever with taxi drivers. The drivers may -- or may not -- pick you up, depending on how they feel. Taxi company lawyers decided long ago that it was financially beneficial to insist that drivers be "independent contractors" who are not eligible for benefits, job security, or any other amenity that employment provides. So cab companies act merely as leasing agencies, paying a few cabbies who have managed to obtain city permits for the right to use their medallions, and renting them out by the day to the lion's share of the 6,000 drivers who haven't managed to obtain a permit.

Instead of ordering cabbies to pick up customers, a taxi company dispatcher conducts the equivalent of a miniauction, sending out word along the airwaves that a "fare" wishes to be picked up; any particular driver may accept, or ignore, this offer, at his pleasure. A skipped fare doesn't hurt the driver -- there will always be more than he can handle, given the current shortage of permits (which I'll get to in just a moment). And it doesn't hurt the company, which makes its money on the $83.50 per shift a driver pays to rent a permit-adorned cab.

If there is no way of knowing the exact numbers, everyone in the cab industry admits that fares are missed all the time. That's because, by taxi-driver design, there are almost never enough taxis on the street to meet demand. Taxi drivers accomplish this artificial shortage of cabs by using politics to limit the number of taxi permits issued by the city.

It's an economist's adage that you can't put a price on anything unless it's scarce. And half-ounce or so taxi medallions are more valuable than gold in this town. So scarce are the city permits -- the waiting list is 2,600 names, with an 11-year wait -- that the lucky few drivers with permits lease medallions to the cab companies for an allowed maximum of $1,800 per month. The city, for its trouble, receives a one-time, $227 application fee. There are now 1,381 permits on the street.

The city increased that number by 100 this year. The drivers fought even this paltry number, and it's easy to see why: A house providing an $1,800-per-month revenue stream would be worth more than $200,000.

According to word on the street, drivers are frequently paid under the table much more than the maximum-allowable $1,800. Before that limit went into effect two years ago, cabbies say medallion-holders were earning between $3,000 and $3,500, a price that some observers contend now approaches $3,800. Another way permit holders get around the $1,800 lease limit is for medallion-holding drivers to "rent" their cab-company shifts directly to non-medallion-holding drivers for more than $100 per shift.

"That's between drivers. It's like pennies from heaven. The money's out there. It's a madhouse," says Phil Ferrucci, a dispatcher at Veterans Cab. "Drivers don't want to see more cabs because they're making money hand over fist. If they poor-mouth you, they're full of shit. The fares are there."

To maintain their permits, taxi drivers must, by law, work two-thirds of the shifts in a given year, assuming a five-day work week. So cabbies will work a handful of three-hour "shifts" on the weekend, keep a normal day job, and then pocket tens of thousands of dollars in fees as they lease the medallions during the rest of the week. When you see lines of cabbies lounging outside hotels, waiting for airport fares, you can bet that many of them are permit owners, "working" their obligatory shifts. And you can bet the farm -- or a taxi medallion -- that these guys aren't likely to respond to calls from elderly ladies in the Western Addition.

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.

Show Pages
My Voice Nation Help
Sort: Newest | Oldest
©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.