I'm in the front passenger's seat of a yellow Ford SUV taxicab that rocks from side to side, repeatedly switching lanes at 80 miles per hour on U.S. 101 north toward downtown San Francisco. As we straddle two lanes approaching the intersection with Interstate 280, my driver raises his Android smartphone just above eye level and examines the route options recommended by Google Maps.
"I'm going to try my best to fuck this freeway right now," he cackles, before veering onto the I-280 ramp at the last possible moment. "It's an SUV, so we can't swerve through traffic so fast. If it were a Crown Victoria we'd be doing 85. This is playing with my life. I'm playing with my life for $40. How small does that make me? Ha, ha, ha, ha!"
My driver, whom I've agreed not to name, indeed risks his (and my) life, his job, his driving record, and the goodwill of his fellow motorists by demonstrating for me a San Francisco cabbie art form called "making a short."
"It's all about, 'Make a short, baby,'" my driver says. "Drivers will ask each other, 'How many shorts did you make today?'"
They're referring to a technique by which cabbies have for decades cheated a San Francisco International Airport system designed to compensate drivers unfortunate enough to pick up a passenger with a nearby destination. Rather than grumble because they waited a typical one to three hours in the taxi line for a mere $15 fare to Brisbane, drivers who return to the airport and swipe a special "short-line" smart card within 30 minutes of leaving get to breeze through a special minimal-wait line, and cruise to the baggage claim area for another passenger, pronto. For an enterprising cabbie, the trick is to drop a customer at a downtown hotel and get back to the airport within the 30-minute window, then pick up another fare to downtown and race yet another 25-mile cannonball run at 90 mph. My driver says passengers, occupied with cellphones and laptops, tend not to protest — at least not to cabbies.
"We hear about it all the time from the guests coming in from the airport," said a valet in front of the Palace Hotel on New Montgomery, who didn't want to be named for fear of getting in trouble with his employer, or with the cabbies. "The drivers go about 90 miles per hour, and then when they get here they practically throw the passengers out. I've been here 14 years, and I've heard about it from the guests every day. Last night I overheard two ladies who'd just got out of a cab from the airport. One of them said, 'Oh, my God. I was so scared.'"
A valet at the Marriott at Fourth and Mission streets — which, like the Palace, is barely within the range of a high-speed taxi trip from the airport — said he can always spot short-run cabbies by the hurry they're in.
"It's like a fluid motion," he said. "As they enter the carport, the trunk opens. The passenger's out. The door shuts. And the cab's gone."
Both valets said short-run drivers will even refuse to pick up new, fare-paying passengers from the hotel, lest they lose valuable seconds in their lucrative short-run gambit.
"Not a day would go by when I wouldn't get in an argument with a cabbie because they were going too fast or were rude to the passengers," the Marriott valet said.
To cabbies up for the stress, it's worth it. According to airport statistics, one-third of SFO taxi trips consist of "shorts." This means that on a typical day, drivers are making hundreds of short runs.
"If you can make it back in 30 minutes, that's another fare. That's why people are willing to risk the drivers' lives, the passengers' lives, and the lives of whomever else," added Robins Mathew, a driver with Yellow Cab, who said he gave up the anxiety of "making shorts" more than a year ago.
Simon Washington, director of the Safe Transportation Research and Education Center at UC Berkeley, called the SFO short line system "an incentive to create a safety hazard."
How then, one might ask, could a city be so daft as to reward drivers who tailgate and weave in and out of traffic at autobahn speeds, terrorize downtown pedestrians, and, in some cases recounted by Municipal Transportation Agency officials, leave passengers short of their destinations so they can return to the airport within 30 minutes?
SFO and MTA officials only recently began asking themselves that same question.
Why did it take so long for city authorities to have this discussion? One answer is that it's another symptom of a San Francisco disease in which government policies and programs are shaped for the benefit of the people providing the service, at the expense of consumers. San Francisco has long prided itself as being pro-labor. And government concessions to workers can sometimes seem preposterous in hindsight.
San Francisco's charter guarantees that Muni drivers remain the second-highest-paid transit operators in the nation, at minimum, burdening the system with unsustainable costs. City rules allow managers to pad employees' pensions by giving workers large raises during their final year, adding to the $10 billion in retirement costs the city faces over the next 25 years.
"It gets back to the fundamental purpose of what government is about. Is it about trying to provide services?" said Supervisor Sean Elsbernd, who advocates changing city pension and Muni-operator salary rules. "Or is it to employ people? For me, the answer is: Government is to provide services."
When it comes to taxi service, regulation tilts steeply against the consumer.
Taxis are not run by government agencies; they're owned and operated by private companies and drivers. But the deck is stacked against consumers thanks to the way the city's taxi system is regulated by the Taxi Commission, the Municipal Transportation Agency, and the Airport Commission. Each of these agencies receives constant pressure from drivers and cab companies to limit competition, limit monitoring of performance, and abort possible reforms, such as a dispatch system requiring that cabbies actually pick up passengers who call. Moreover, the Taxi Commission rarely hears from the passengers who supposedly benefit from regulation, a situation that allows a host of problems to persist.