The SFO Cannonball Run

Horrified by a typical taxi trip from SFO? Thank a government program that pays cabbies to speed.

"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.

Additionally, for years regulators have tolerated the airport's short-line system, which cabbies have perceived as a valuable amenity. Eliminating it "would really be devastating to cab drivers," said Barry Korengold, president of the San Francisco Cab Drivers Association.

It wouldn't be devastating to drivers who didn't game the system, however.

If the short-line system were eliminated, it would not disadvantage drivers in the long run, even though individuals would periodically be stuck with low-fare runs to areas like Brisbane and have to get back in a 90-to-180-minute line.

"Over time, it would work itself out," said Washington. "Over two months. Even over a month. Over a year any taxi driver would get as many short trips as any other taxi driver."

Like saps who "invest" in lottery tickets, cabbies have cherished the short line based on a simple misunderstanding of statistics. And the only real beneficiaries have been the 90-mph cheaters, who go to the front of the line and make everyone else wait longer.

SFO's short-line system began around 30 years ago, according to 35-year cab-industry veteran Charles Rathbone, assistant operations manager at Luxor Cabs. At the time, airport brass wanted cabbies to halt the practice of refusing to pick up passengers bound for Burlingame or other nearby communities that were only a cheap fare's distance from the airport.

"The fare would be low, so the driver would discourage the rider from taking the cab," Rathbone said. Under the short-line system, however, "you find yourself ... racing the gun to get back."

During the late 1990s, the return time limit was extended from 20 to 30 minutes "to allow for traffic consideration and so that drivers would not be speeding back to the airport to try and make a 20-minute time limit," said Henry Thompson, SFO assistant deputy director for operations and security.

But the new 30-minute window made it possible for drivers to expand their racetrack all the way to downtown San Francisco's hotels, more than 12 miles from the airport. For some drivers, this was like a new drug.

"The adrenaline kicks in, and you're thinking, I want that $40. And I want the next $40. I've gotten three shorts in a day. One guy I know got six shorts in day," my driver says, as we curve along the ramp transferring us from 101 to I-280. "We're going 83 miles per hour in a 55 miles per hour zone. Luckily there's no CHP here today. It's the craziness that gets you there in time. It's not reason that gets you there. I feel like I could be Bruce Lee right now. I'm Jackie Chan. I'm Nicolas Cage in Gone in 60 Seconds."

As we descend the Seventh Street offramp near the Hall of Justice, my driver allows himself to become consumed by the persona of the "short-run" whiz he's promised himself he'd no longer be.

"I'm there. I'm in the zone, baby. I'm the king of the road right now. I'm the boss," he shouts, as we luck into a relatively clear shot up Seventh Street toward Mission. Once there, we're stymied by some young women in a crosswalk.

"Fucking girls," my driver yells, then turns to me and says in a more reasonable-sounding voice: "You see all the bad energy this creates?"

Perhaps. But the important thing is that we've already eaten up 13 minutes. And we're several blocks from our destination: the Marriott on Fourth Street.

Before we launched our short-run joyride, my driver, an ebullient man from India in his 20s, took me on a tour of the cabbies' underworld beneath the concrete slabs of SFO's parking and baggage facilities, where 100 or so taxis wait in rows.

This is the regular taxi line, which attracts cabbies not interested in humping for $15 fares downtown. They wait as long as three hours for their turn driving by the baggage claim area, in hopes of picking up a dreamy $175 fare to Vacaville. To the left of the main taxi queue, more daring drivers roll through the short line, where waits rarely exceed 20 minutes. A short-line Mario Andretti can earn more than a Vacaville jackpot winner by making four $40 downtown fares in under three hours. To sweeten the pot, the airport even waives a $4 taxi fee for a driver back within 30 minutes.

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