Thursday, October 1, 2009

A Short History of San Francisco's Taxi Crisis: Bigoty & Cabbies, Part 1

An African American customer of mine was waxing sympathetic.

"I don't know how you do this job," he said, "I mean they're rude, they abuse you, they demean you ... it's almost like being black."

"Except," I said, "I don't have to drive the cab home."

But he had a point. The stereotype is almost exactly the same. Cab drivers supposedly are dumb, dishonest, lazy, dirty and smell bad. Although they're stupid, you have to watch them because they're clever and they'll cheat you if they can.

The cliché is also fed by the fact that many cab drivers are immigrants and minorities of various kind. Snobs who are way too PC to utter a racial or ethnic slur can still get their jollies by slandering "cabbies."

Of course labeling a class of people as inferior leads to more than mere insults. Inferior people are treated differently. If you want to complain about a bus driver, you call your local MTA. If you want to complain about about a cab driver, in most cities you call the police.

Far too many people would probably agree with the former Director of the San Francisco Taxi Commission, Heidi Machen, who wrote, "All of the ex-cons and alternative types who can't make it in another profession ... eventually wind up driving ... taxis."

At best, we're seen as a collection of foreigners and lowlifes.

Certainly San Francisco's "liberal" mayor, Gavin Newsom, was not thinking of cab drivers in February 2009 when he wrote, "Our job (during the recession) is ... to save San Franciscan's from losing their homes, losing their jobs and losing their small businesses."

On the contrary, Mayor Newsom intended to help fight San Francisco's budget deficit by taking the taxis away from San Francisco's cab drivers, selling them at auctions and keeping "most of the money..."

Newsom never mentioned the fact that his plan would cause most of San Francisco's 1,200 taxicab owners to lose their small businesses, their jobs and no doubt their homes.

"This city asset (taxis) has been underutilized and the (taxi) industry has underperformed," said the mayor who ran for election on a platform of balancing the budget. The city was $600 million in debt at the time he spoke.

And he talks about us underperforming?

That's the nice thing about spouting stereotypes. You don't have to worry about facts. If by "underutilized" the mayor means the taxi industry isn't paying its fair share, this is nonsense. The cab business actually pays millions of dollars per year in fees and taxes. Medallion holders alone pay $1.5 million per year in licensing fees.

If the mayor means (as he seems to imply) that he can solve San Francisco's deficit problems by selling cabs, he's dreaming. If he auctioned off all of the fleet's 1,500 taxis for $400,000 a piece, it would indeed cover his deficit. But (legal issues aside) who would buy the taxis in such a scenario?

Can you imagine the outcry that would take place if Newsom tried to pull a stunt like this in another industry? What if he decided to take over the city's trucking businesses? Or beauty salons? Or even massage parlors?

He would be condemned by the unions on one hand and civil libertarians on the other.

But cab drivers? Who cares? They're "underperfoming".

Mayor Newsom fought against a 1.395% business tax that could have raised millions of dollars for the people but would have hit his friends and himself.

Gavin Newsom apparently thinks that somebody has to sacrifice themselves for the good of the city but it's not going to be him or his cronies.

Let it be the cabbies.

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