Saturday, May 2, 2009

A Micro History of Taxicab Crises or the Dog and Pony Shows

Every seven or eight years a new Mayor decides that he or she is going to make political hay by "fixing" the taxi business. I haven't fully checked this out but I believe a "cab crisis" usually coincides with a cut back in bus service - as is the case now. By making a show of "improving" the cab service, the Mayor in question hopes that the voters will forget that they are waiting longer for buses.

It's an easy sell. The public thinks of "cabbies" as scumbags morally superior only to lawyers, there's always somebody somewhere who can't get a taxi and common wisdom states that more cabs on the street equals better service. The common wisdom is false. But the truth or falsity of a statement never stopped a politician from making it.

Mayor Dianne Feinstein, for instance, declared a taxi crisis in preparation for the 1984 Democratic Convention. Feinstein wanted to be chosen as the first female Vice Presidential candidate so she had even more than the usual motivation. Attacking cab drivers, however, probably turned out to be one of her few political miscalculations. The ruckus raised by protesting taxi drivers (it included drivers backing up in front of City Hall in order to make that beep-beep-beep noise) was hardly the sound-bite that the Party of Labor wanted to hear. They chose Geraldine Ferraro instead.

Feinstein, however, started a pattern by setting up a commission to "study" the cab "problem." The commission of course consisted of five guys who owed their political careers to her. They in turn passed the study on to a young Lieutenant (whose name I have forgotten) and instructed him to delve into every aspect of the business.

One thing he was supposed to do was get input from the drivers themselves. He set up a meeting with a group of us. I was a rookie then but we calculated that there was more 150 years worth of cab driving experience in the room. Everybody was eagerly looking forward to finally telling somebody how the business actually worked.

But, instead of asking questions as he'd been instructed, the Lieutenant told us what his study had found. As I recall, he didn't like being interrupted either. What he had found was that the cab business worked just like Dianne Feinstein said it did.

 It was a great career move for the Lieutenant. He was commended by the commission and shortly afterwards was promoted to Captain. A few years later, he became Commander of the Taravel station. Last I heard he'd retired and was doing well in a private law practice. 

The pattern had been set:
  • A cab crisis is declared. 
  • A commission is appointed to study the problem. 
  • Cab drivers protest and talk for a minute or two at commission hearing where the decisions have already been made behind closed doors. 
  • The commission finds that cab driver quality is low and that more cabs have to be put on the street. 
  • The crisis ends and is forgotten until the next Mayor looks for a problem to fix that will bring in votes.
Of course none of this trauma has improved the taxi service one bit. How could it? You have to know how a thing works before you can improve it. The only lasting effects have been to create more medallion holders like myself (for which I'm thankful) and reduce the incomes of drivers working bad shifts.

It can't help but be noticed that this current crisis doesn't quite fit the pattern.  Aside from the deeper complexity of the issues, the main difference is Chris Hayashi and her Town Hall meetings where she actually listens to what cab drivers have to say. By doing so, she has accomplished the seemingly impossible feat of being universally liked and respected by a group where half the people hate each others guts.

If nothing else, a more rational set of taxicab rules and regulations should result from this process. But a larger question remains unanswered: Is this just a better dog and pony show?

Ms Hayashi herself has repeatedly said that she "can only make recommendations - the MTA has the final say." And, of course behind the MTA lies the Mayor.

It's entirely possible that, at end of a lengthy process, Newsom will simply issue a press release stating that the Town Hall meetings confirmed whatever plan he thinks will get him the most votes.

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