Friday, April 10, 2009

Why Do You Have to Wait for a Taxi? Part 2

The idea that you can't get a cab when you want one seems a universal theme and appears in dozens of movies and books - frequently as a major plot point.

In Manhattan, for instance, Woody Allen runs across the city to tell his jail-bait girl friend, "I'm sorry I'm late, I couldn't find a cab." In C.P. Snow's autobiographical novel, Strangers and Brothers, set in London in the 1960's, his wealthy hostess looks out of her window, sees that it's pouring rain and delivers this immortal line, "Let me lend you my driver - you shan't get a taxi tonight." Paul Veerhoven's psycho-sexual thriller , The Fourth Man, set in Amsterdam in 1983 ends with a soon-to-be victim saying to his beautiful soon-to-be killer, "Let me take you home. You'll never get a taxi out here."

In short, San Franciscans aren't the only people that experience a time lag between their desire for a cab it's appearance. If the taxi service here is really that bad, why do I regularly have people from all over the world telling me what a pleasure it is to ride in a taxi here?
  • A recent customer from Paris compared the taxi services in New York, San Francisco and his hometown. The drivers in New York scared him because they drove so fast. The Parisians let him know that they were doing him a favor for picking him up and would tell him to walk if it was a short ride. He liked the San Francisco cab drivers best because they drove "so smoooothly."
  • The general consensus is that you can get taxis faster in New York than you can in San Francisco but Manhatten drivers don't always take you where you want to go.
  • The professionalism of San Francisco's cab drivers, in fact, is known and appreciated almost everywhere ... except in San Francisco.
So that's it? It's the best of all possible worlds? Hardly ... there is often a problem with getting taxis in the neighborhoods. There are reasons for this:
  • Simple supply and demand. The farther you go from the center of the city, the less taxi business there is. It's natural for cab drivers, like people in any business, to act in ways that maximize their profits.
  • Cab drivers need to eat. Another obvious fact that often escapes people who criticize the service. If they hung out in places like the Sunset, the outer Mission, the Richmond or other outlying areas, they wouldn't be eating much - not under the current system.
  • The times when the service is bad are usually the same times when service for everything is bad - times when: it's hard to get a ticket to a show, a seat at restaurant, a place on the bus or a seat on BART.
Problems with the taxi service are also exaggerated by studies that concentrate on peak time rather than normal service.
  • Jordana Thigpen conducted her study of radio calls on the busiest nights and did not study the same areas during the slow periods.
  • A neighborhood like Noe Valley, for example, that has problems getting taxis at 8:00 pm on a Friday night gets fantastic service at 8:00 am on a Sunday morning.
  • Critics of the service, whether consciously or not, continually compare taxis to private limos. If you have to wait for a cab, that's it - SF taxis suck.
  • I recently picked up a wealthy matron in front of a beauty salon less than a minute after she called. She got in, gave me a stern look and wanted to know why she had had to wait for a cab the day before. No doubt a Gavin Newsom fan.
  • Nobody asks what is really possible from a cab service.
I've been driving in this city for 25 years. During that time San Francisco has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on various commissions and numerous studies that purported to be finding ways to improve cab service. 800 additional cabs have been put on the street. The net result of all this has been:
  • Taxis can now legally make left turns on Market
  • Taxis can now use in buse lanes.
  • Cab companies are converting to hybrids.
  • Service is faster at conventions and hotels.
On the other hand:
  • The sevice in the neighborhoods is no better (or worse) than it was when I started.
  • It's actually harder to get a cab at ball games because the police decided to regulate the ways taxis pick-up at AT&T and whatever Candlestick is being called this year. The police being the police naturally restricted service to sides of the building where cab customers are least likely to come.
  • It's much harder for cab drivers to make money on slow nights.
Considering the time, energy and money put into the subject of improving service this doesn't seem like much of a return now does it?

Why? Politics my dears, politics.

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