The SFO Cannonball Run

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

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.


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.

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.

Washington's Safe Transportation Research and Education Center compiled a chart, at my request, of speed-related injuries and deaths on the 12 miles between SFO and downtown. The number of speed-related injuries and deaths along that corridor was not significantly different from the statistics for the route connecting Oakland International Airport, which doesn't have the same short-trip incentive system, to that city's downtown hotels.

However, Washington said this cursory analysis didn't indicate speeding taxis aren't a problem.”We'd have to actually study it carefully and put some significant resources into it to produce a meaningful result,” he said. “Logically and fundamentally, there is an issue with an economic incentive to speed. It puts people at risk, and it's a fundamental flaw. You don't want to set up systems that compromise public safety.”

After racing through SOMA, rolling through the Marriott's carport, and heading back toward the 101 onramp, my driver seems simultaneously panicked and ecstatic.

“Now is the real thing,” he says.”We have 13 minutes left. It's almost impossible now.”

Apparently that's short-line-wizard-speak for “we have to drive like absolute lunatics.”

We rip onto the freeway, our stubby SUV rocking from side to side. Once on the elevated platform heading south, we're quickly above 90 mph.

Still, things seem dicey as we blaze through the Candlestick Flats.

My driver's GPS unit shows we are three miles from the airport kiosk where he swipes his card to get into the short line. And we have only two minutes before the 30-minute deadline.

“You see how it comes down to seconds,” he says, as we race at 85 mph, then at 90 mph on the 45 mph zone on the airport offramp. “I'm still not going to give up.”

Consultant Hansu Kim, who advises the MTA on taxi policy, told me in an interview that the short-line reckless driving problem is sometimes overstated: “It's 's impossible to drive someone to downtown or to the north of the city and back in less than 30 minutes.”

But, back in my driver's cab, the GPS unit shows we have one mile to go. The meter, meanwhile, shows we have 60 seconds left on our 30-minute clock. My cabbie drives double the speed limit under the green SFO departing-flights sign.


And we make it in time to enter the short line.

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