Sunday, October 4, 2009

A Short History of San Francisco's Taxi Crisis: Bigoty & Cabbies, Part 2

When Mayor Newsom discovered that he was $600 million in debt, one of the first things he DID NOT DO was tell the people of San Francisco that he was going to cut back on their bus service. Instead he came out with his plan to "improve" taxi service by taking taxis away from cab drivers, auctioning them off and keeping the money for the city.

People in San Francisco take ten times more buses than cabs. In short, the issue was and is a red herring, a pump fake, a sound bite designed to take the public's mind away the fact that they are going to be waiting longer for buses.

Mayors from Dianne Feinstein on have used taxicabs for similar ploys, but Newsom is the first mayor to claim that he could improve taxi service by attacking San Francisco's cab drivers.

His justifications rest on a series of half truths coupled with assumptions that are essentially racist. But first - the facts, just the facts.

San Francisco has a unique cab system.
  • Taxi medallions are not for sale. They are leased to drivers on a first come first serve basis.
  • There is a waiting list to get a medallion that is currently 3,000 applicants long.
  • The wait for a medallion is about 15 years.
  • The medallion goes back to the city when a medallion holder either stops driving or dies.
Now some half truths followed by facts.

Half truth: Auctioning off cabs would give more taxi drivers a chance to own one.
  • Fact: Almost 1,400 out of 1,500 of San Francisco's taxicab medallions are owned by individual drivers. About 1 driver in 5 owns a medallion. In other words 90% of the taxis are owned by individual drivers. This is by far the highest percentage in the country.
  • Fact: In New York City by comparison, 5,525 out of 13,107 are owned by individual drivers. This works out to 42% of the medallions - less than half the percentage in San Francisco.
  • Fact: Johnny Marks of writes: "That % (the 42%) sounds a little high, what with the cost of the city license (medallion) presently going for $750,000.00 which does not include the cost of the cab itself."
  • Fact: According to the Asian Law Caucus only 1 driver in 20 can afford to buy a taxi in NYC.
  • Probability: Most of the cabs in NYC are actually owned by people financing the cab drivers, not the drivers themselves.
Half truth: According to Mayor Newsom's man at the MTA, Director Malcom Heinicke, taxi medallions are "essentially free."
  • Fact: The medallions are not dropped from the sky or won in a lottery.
  • Fact: A driver puts in an average of 15 years of hard labor to get the medallion and pays about $200,000 in rental fees. Therefore, the medallion is "earned" not free.
Half truth: Aging medallion holders are not working and because of this the service is bad.
  • Fact: About 20% of the medallion holders are indeed too old to drive. This does not, however, mean that the cabs are sitting idle. Ordinary drivers work the cabs when the medallion holder doesn't. Almost every cab in the fleet is in operation 20 hours a day, seven days a week.
Doublethink: According to Newsom, "If drivers had more of a stake in their industry ... that could translate into better service for the customers."
  • Opinion: I don't see how somebody would have "more of a stake" by getting a cab in an auction than working 15 years to own one.
  • Fact: If you own the medallion you own the medallion. It doesn't matter how you got it. The stake in the industry is the same.
There are subtexts to Newsom's arguments that basically racist. He's morphing the stereotypes formally associated with blacks. What's he's saying in other words is:
  • The service is bad because the drivers are lazy.
  • We're paying them too much money so they aren't working.
  • If we pay them less (put them in debt to pay for the auction price) they'll work harder.
Newsom has no idea if the cab service is good or not. (The average waiting time in front of his most famous restaurant, The Balboa Cafe, is about 15 seconds.) But Newsom does know that he can always gain political points by appealing to people's prejudices and bashing "cabbies."
  • The truth is that the medallion system has created a class of professional drivers. The promise of being able to own a medallion someday keeps experienced drivers in the business.
  • Fact: San Francisco has the most knowledgeable cab drivers in the USA.
  • Fact: Replacing San Francisco's veteran drivers with deep-pocket newbies would most certainly make the service much worse.
The idea that medallion holders aren't working because they make too much money is absurd.
  • At one public hearing, a woman claimed that medallion holders weren't working because they were home eating pizzas. Did she mean to say that they were home eating watermelons?
  • Facts: Medallion holders average about $45,000 per year. The average salary in San Francisco is $65,000. Medallion holders get paid $2,000 a month to lease out their cabs. Studio apartments start at $1,500 per month. Most cab drivers can't afford not to work.
According to a source who wishes to remain anonymous, Newsom came up with a plan when he was a city supervisor to solve the homeless problem by detoxing homeless people and having them drive taxicabs.

Newsom's callous disregard for the fate of the drivers is certainly consistent with this attitude. In his world, cab drivers are lowlifes and undesirables. They are not "one of us," not real San Franciscans. If the drivers are too old, you just take the cabs away and let them fend for themselves. If they waited 15 years and paid $200,000 in fees with the idea that they were going to own something at the end of it, that's their problem.

This is the way you treat a member of an underclass, not a fellow human being.

When these stupid, lazy cab drivers mounted a series of protests against his plan, Mayor Newsom had his man Heinicke take it off the table.

This was in March 2009. But that wasn't the end of the matter. Only the beginning.

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