Night Business: Warning Parties Create Roadblocks for Late-Night Transit

When Supervisor Scott Wiener called for a Late Night Transportation Working Group to address the dearth of transportation options for people working graveyard shifts, he envisioned a motley battalion coming together for a noble cause. Labor organizers, cab drivers, car-hire services, public transit agencies, and nightlife employers all have a vested interest in San Franciscans having a safe way home after dark, he thought. And surely they can agree on ways to accomplish that.

But setting up a task force in a sphere as balkanized as transportation might be a tall order. Wiener found that out the hard way, when he convened the first meeting of the disparate interest groups on April 14. He'd invited representatives from all the major transit lines and the app-based Transportation Network Companies. He'd asked the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency to invite drivers and managers of cab companies.

The meeting quickly devolved into bickering over who gets to make decisions and dispense resources in a highly cutthroat market. Wiener had essentially called upon feudal warlords to broker a government peace negotiation.

Cab drivers felt jilted because the supervisor had made personal overtures to Uber, Lyft, and SideCar, while targeting cab companies only through an emissary. Although the SFMTA's Director of Taxis and Accessible Services Christiane Hayashi says she announced the hearing on a mailing list and contacted Yellow Cab specifically, many cab company owners say they weren't aware of the hearing. Charles Rathbone of Luxor Cab says he was the only company manager in attendance — because he read the email blast.

“I don't think we should have to go hat-in-hand behind a gypsy cab operator to get access to this process,” Rathbone says, characterizing Uber and Lyft with the derogatory label “gypsy cab” to imply they aren't legal.

Wiener dismisses such arguments, and chides taxi interests for trying to hijack the meeting. “Both the companies and the drivers felt the need not to talk about late-night transit, but to complain about the bad situation the cab industry is in,” the supervisor says. While there seems to be a broad consensus about the paucity of late-night transit options, he adds, taxi drivers were too preoccupied with their own crusade to offer any concrete solutions.

Wiener dispatched the San Francisco Entertainment Commission and the Office of Economic and Workforce Development to co-chair the group, which will likely push for more consistent all-night Muni buses, expanded TransBay service across the bay, and the possibility of BART shuttles.

Whether a panel of people with ideas — and internecine hostilities — will translate into actual progress remains to be seen. Perhaps it helps that late-night transit carries a wave of popular support behind it.

To Rathbone, the solution is obvious: More taxi stands, and more taxis to stop at them. He says he's happy to offer other thoughts, if invited.

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