The SFO Cannonball Run

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

When he started his cabbie career back in 2008, my driver quickly mastered the short-line system. He spent the better part of the year maximizing his income by pushing 90 mph in the Candlestick Flats, flashing his lights to get 75 mph drivers to clear the way, and screeching around corners and honking at pedestrians once he made it downtown.

"I made some shorts. And I made real money during the first few months. I didn't think it was wrong," he said.

During the past year, however, he had an epiphany. He was in two wrecks, neither of which had anything to do with the short line. In one, a guy ran a red light and smashed into his side fender, sparing his life by barely missing the driver's door; in the other accident, another driver rear-ended him, totaling his cab.

The horror of the near-misses got him thinking about the short-line system and its perverse incentives. Worse than the danger and stress of NASCAR-style urban driving was the way he felt the incentives degraded a driver's character.

"Who am I? A senseless driver who went crazy on the freeway for $40? How small does that make me?" he says, repeating a phrase he would use half a dozen times during our ride.

"I am very spiritual, and it made me feel like a rat," he says of the short-line game he used to play.

In other words, my driver was a naif, unaccustomed to the backward priorities that sometimes propel San Francisco.


At a $4 billion operation such as San Francisco International Airport, the malfunction of an electronic card-reading machine should count as a trivial problem. Meanwhile, a policy that rewards cabbies for terrorizing San Francisco should count as a serious problem.

But Planet San Francisco is governed by inertia and entropy, not efficient design. And it took a combination of factors coinciding with last month's breakdown of one of the short line's card-reading machines to put in motion the short-line policy's demise.

"They're trying to get it fixed," said Jarvis Murray, MTA's enforcement and legal affairs manager, in reference to the bum card-reader. "But if they didn't have the whole short program, they wouldn't need that machine."

You don't say?

At around the same time the broken card-reader occasioned a moment of introspection among city officials, my cabbie decided to act on his moral crisis and wrote letters to the mayor, the Board of Supervisors, and MTA administrators, describing how the short-line system endangers drivers, passengers, and bystanders. He spoke with 30 drivers who agreed that the system was dangerous.

"It was a moment of epiphany. In Buddhist words, I can say I got enlightened," he said. "You're taking somebody's life into your hands, and you don't want to do it over, and over, and over."

I found his Feb. 24 letter to the Board of Supervisors in a city file, called him, and he offered me a ride. I also began making phone calls to airport and MTA officials. After years of ignoring the problem, bureaucrats were taking notice.

"This time-based short-trip system has been plagued with concerns for safety, customer service, and fairness that highlight the need for change," SFO's Thompson wrote me in an e-mail. Also around the same time, airport officials began looking for ways to raise money. They began to take a closer look at the costs of the short-line system, which cuts the $4 airport fee to zero the first time a driver makes a short run, and to $2 subsequent times. Rather than raising the fee, officials asked, why not just eliminate the short-line waiver? San Jose, after all, had recently eliminated its own short-line system.

With all these factors floating in the background, MTA and airport officials scheduled a meeting for March 11 to reconsider the short-line system. After the meeting, they announced a decision to change the policy July 1. In the meantime, authorities will discuss with drivers the possibility of some other way to compensate cabbies for low-fare trips, and then submit a proposal to the Airport Commission.

"The truth of the matter is, there were benefits in the 'short' program and that's why we allowed it. However, as I have pointed out to you, it has outlived its usefulness and problems appear to be continuing to grow," Thompson wrote in an e-mail.

Even Korengold, the head of the taxi drivers' association, acknowledged the system has flaws.

"A lot of drivers were abusing that privilege, or system, by going too fast," he said. But he said the cabbies won't let go without a fight. Possible concessions might include creating a new system where passengers pay a flat fee, $20 perhaps, to nearby locations. Or passengers could wait in separate lines for nearby and faraway destinations.

"Whatever system they put in will have to be fair to cab drivers. I don't think the short system is a perfect system. It has flaws, and that's one of the flaws: It gives drivers an incentive to race," Korengold said.

Of course there's no need to "compensate" drivers at all, if one considers the logic of UC Berkeley transportation researcher Washington, who said the law of averages would compensate hard-luck low-fare drivers over time.

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