Sunday, October 30, 2011

TAC 10.24.11

The Monday 10/24/11 TAC meeting covered a variety of topics.

The photo shows (from left) driver and dispatcher Bill Minikel, driver and blogger John Han, medallion holder and Yellow Cab representative Tim Lapp.

In what other industry can you find councilors of such uniqueness and diversity?

Illegal Taxi & Limo Update

SFMTA Investigator Eric Richholt thanked all the drivers who have sent him photos and videos of bandit cabs and limos and said to keep the info coming.  He can be reached at: or 510-867-4694.

Richholt stated that he and his partners have handed out over one hundred $90 white zone citations to limos and nine $5,000 tickets to illegal cabs, including three for not having A-cards.

A few of the drivers expressed impatience with what has been done. They wanted a bigger crackdown on limos and town cars acting as cabs. Eric said that it was more difficult to prove that limos were making illegal pick-ups but that he and his colleagues would be going after them in the near future.

These drivers appeared to forget that this is the first systematic attack on illegal vehicles in memory (mine anyway) and is just getting underway. It wouldn't exist at all if Deputy Director of Taxi Services Christiane Hayashi hadn't written legislation to allow MTA investigators to give these citations and hadn't gotten the law passed by a hostile Board of Supervisors that thinks illegal taxis and limos serve the public. She also had to hire and train the investigators. Taxi Services needs a few more of them in order to maintain a presence on the streets both night and day.

Richholt said that they were prioritizing illegal taxis because they often have substandard equipment, rarely have insurance and thus are a danger to the public.

We Can Finally Use the Bike Lanes - Sometimes

After over a year of discussions, Hayashi has finally talked the powers that be into allowing cabs restricted use of bike lanes for picking up and dropping off customers.

Taxicabs will be issued bumper stickers indicating that the cabs have the right to be in the bike lanes for the above purposes. Taxis are supposed to use the lanes only as a last resort if there are no other safe locations nearby. We can only use separated bike lanes to drop off disabled or elderly customers. (Click photo for more detail.)

We are only supposed to pick customers up in a separated bike lane if the dispatcher tells us that the customer is disabled. Does this mean that we have to blow off disabled customers who try to flag us down from these areas? I think this item needs a bit more thought and discussion.

At any rate, we are only supposed to enter a separated bike lane at the beginning of the block and exit at the end.

For more information contact the SFMTA.

TAC Will Finally Be Able to Present Proposals to the SFMTA Board

After an exchange of letters between Taxi Advisory Council Chair Chris Sweis and SFMTA Chief Financial Officer Sonali Bose, it has been decided that Sweis will be able to present TAC's recommendations directly to the SFMTA Board at the their bi-weekly meetings.

This should put an end to a period when no recommendations were acted upon by the Board.

For background see TAC: or, Whatever Happened to Our Recommendations?...

New Town Hall Meeting Schedule

Friday, October 21, 2011

On Supervisors and the 5% Credit Card Fee

Conspicuously absent from the credit card discussions at the recent Government Audit and Oversight Committee chaired by Supervisor David Campos (photo) was the simple fact that San Francisco's taxi drivers have been given a 24% meter increase  WITHOUT A GATE INCREASE.

This is what you might call the missing context for the debates. There are several things to be said about this.

1. In my 28 year cab driving memory, this is the first time that a gate increase did not accompany a meter increase. They have usually been raised simultaneous. One company I worked for inflated the gates before the meter went up.

2. If you assume that half the cab rides are paid by credit cards (way high) this means the 5% credit card fees = 2.5% of a taxi driver's gross (it's really more like 1% or 2%).

3. This means that the actual gain for drivers with the meter increase of 24% minus the gross credit card fee of 2.5% = 21.5%.

4. I once knew a cab driver who had a $200 ride and did nothing but bitch about how much money he spent for gas on the trip ... Hmmm. This seems like a non sequitur. Why do I think of it now?

Quid Pro Quo

John Lazar, President and General Manager of Luxor Cab, was telling people that not including a gate increase with the meter increase was an oversight and a sign of the incompetence of Deputy Director of Taxi Services Christiane Hayashi.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The cab companies had been crying about their credit charges to Hayashi so she finally agreed to pass on the charges (at the same percentage as they were passed by most other cities in the country) on the condition that there would be NO GATE INCREASE going along with a meter increase. This was talked about at length and in detail at the Town Hall meetings last spring.

Furthermore, it was clear (to me at least) that the only reason the SFMTA Board did not to include a gate increase was because of the quid pro quo that Hayashi wrote into the legislation. In other words, there would have been a gate increase if credit card charges had not been passed on to drivers.

Let's do a litte more arithmetic.

1. John Lazar wanted an 8% gate increase - on top of the 5%. If this had been granted (and the main reasons that it wasn't were Hayashi's legislation and negotiation skills) 10.5% would have been taken from the 24% making the net raise 13.5%.

2. On the other hand, if the credit card charges had not been passed to the drivers, Lazar and his pals would have been pushing for 10% or 12 % of the gate. This would have worked out to net raises of 12% or 14%.

3. In other words, drivers are between 7% and 10% better off paying 5% credit card charges and having the gates controlled than they are under any other realistic scenario.

Note that I used the word "realistic." Some drivers will say the companies should eat the credit card charges and the drivers should continue with the same (or even lower) gates. Anybody can say anything but, in the world of real politics, that isn't going to happen.

It seems to me that the important factor is the bottom line - how much the drivers take home. And,  in my opinion, we're better off with controlled gates.

Is the 5% Written in Stone?

Of course not.

Hayashi has been trying to find ways to lower that figure almost from the start. The board on the left is from a Town Hall meeting last May when lowering or eliminating credit cards fees was discussed.

 Furthermore, Hayashi is one of the first persons to popularize the use of the Square (with a 2.75% fee) and other similar devices (although there has turned out to be problems with charge backs with some of these apps). And, as she pointed out to the Supervisors, there have been many legal and other changes in the last year that need to be studied that could result in lowered credit card fees.

There also are all kinds of legal, technical and social issues involved. Off the top my head, for instance, allowing cabs not to take credit cards might end up chasing business to Uber and other limo services. In fact, it already has. Having customers pick up the charges could have the same effect. Putting, say, a three dollar surcharge for credit card use might stimulate customers to stiff cab drivers on the tip - and so on.

Sounds like food for some more Town Hall Meetings.

Oh yes - I almost forgot. John Lazar inadvertently tipped his hand when he told the supervisors that he took in $1 million worth of credit card charges and paid out $40,000 every month. That = 4%, not 5%.

Sounds like 1% of wiggle room for Hayashi.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

What I don't want people to know I said about Ed Lee

The Government Audit and Oversight Committee

I didn't go to the meeting but I did watch much of it on video.

I have to say that I've witnessed few things more absurd, more ludicrous than watching Supervisor David Campos sternly lecturing Hayshi for not doing her job properly after she's negotiated the biggest net pay raise for cab drivers since the taxi unions were busted 35 years ago.

I also found Supervisor David Chiu's assertion that the cab industry should look at the overall business including ways to improve service entertaining. What does he think we've been going for the last two years? I'm one of a couple a dozen drivers and industry people who've devoted at least 300 hours to the task under the leadership of Deputy Director Christiane Hayashi.

This a complicated problem but there have been a few good ideas including Open Taxi Access - a plan that originated from a discussion between Ms. Hayashi and John Wolper of Cabulous.  If the SFMTA Board ever gets around to passing the plan, cab service in the neighborhoods will drastically improve and taxi drivers will make more money.

Maybe the Board of Supervisors can urge the SFMTA Board to pass the legislation.

Finally, thanks to Supervisor Mark Farrell for taking Dirty Harry's advice to heart and knowing his limitations. Supervisor Farrell voted not to continue with these meaningless hearings because he doesn't fully understand the issues and the MTA is already dealing with them.

Kudos to Ed Lee

For being the first Major during the 28 years that I've been in the taxi business not to try to pick up easy votes by blindly calling for more cabs. Unlike Supervisor Scott Weiner and his intuitive insights (Does he gaze at his navel? Does he talk to God?), Mayor Lee wants to place questions of cab need and service, etc on a more scientific basis and has put out a bid for experts to do PC&N studies - an idea, naturally, that originated with Deputy Director Chrisiane Hayashi during a Town Hall Meeting a few years ago.

Go Ed! You've got my vote.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

On the Hunt with Eric and Charles

Last Friday night I tagged along again with SFMTA investigators Eric Richholt and Charles Castillo. Instead of busting limos like they did last August, they were after illegal taxis which is more complex.

The  investigators can't ticket the vehicles simply because they look like taxicabs. Fake cab drivers have to be caught in the act of picking a customer up before a citation can be handed out.

 This means that Charles and Eric do a lot of basic police work like compiling records, checking addresses and looking for patterns. They now have a listing of 25 illegal taxis with vehicle licenses.
They have tracked down locations where the bogus cabs are parked and know where some of the phony cab drivers live.     (To read complete posts click on the photos).

Taxi Services will soon have the ability to look up the addresses where the cars are registered which will make the job much easier.  In the meantime, the duo spend a lot of time following bandit cabs and staking out places where they know fake taxis are usually parked.

If this seems like mucho work, there is a reward. Thanks to legislation drawn up by Deputy Director of Taxi Services Christiane Hayashi, there is an administrative fine of $5,000. So far eight tickets have been given out (although three of those were for driving a legal cab without an A-card). Furthermore, these administrative fines cannot be lowered but in one case a Hearing Officer took pity on the bandit driver and gave him a 24-month payment plan.

Eric and Charles have a goal of wiping out fake taxis in San Francisco. "If there were fifteen illegal cabs in the Mission," Eric said, "and we only got five, we wouldn't be satisfied."

We started out in the Excelsior and Outer Mission checking out known places and hoping that the drivers would take the pseudo cabs out so we could bust them. Below are a few of the illegal cabs that are part of Charles' and Eric's 25.

Eric spotted 712 driving on Mission and we followed hoping that the driver'd pick up a flag but he only went home for a break. We drove back to Mission searching for more illegals.

Eric spent several years policing drug gangs in Oakland. I asked him if that was what made him such a polite person. He gave me a wry smile and said, "No - that was just a lot of fun" in a way that made me think I'd rather have him with me than against me in a fight.

He soon spotted a bandit that they'd been looking for carrying passengers on Mission Street. Eric whipped a wild u-turn that was worth at least two points on a DMV printout (I wanna be a cop in my next life) and followed the fake cab to a house in the Excelsior. We waited a half block away while the driver dropped off a family and drove back onto the street. The hunt was on.

Eric pulled the classic maneuver of passing the bogus taxi and letting it pass us a bit later.

Charles and Eric recognized the driver from a photograph that had been sent to them by a real cab driver. The real driver had confronted the fraud and threatened to call the cops. The guy jumped out of his vehicle, said that he was a cop and expressed his feelings about the threat. Eric now calls him Public Enemy #1.

It's not a good idea, by the way, to confront these guys. Nothing good can come of it. Just get the car's phony name and number, license and phone numbers as well as any photos or videos and send them to Eric at

We followed P.E.1 from Ocean and Mission to Valencia and Ceasar Chavez where he lost us at a red light. I think he made us and took evasive maneuvers but Eric didn't agree. Whatever - the dude was gone.

We went downtown, spent a couple of hours without finding much and were about to head home when we turned down Polk and spotted Day Cab parked across from McTeague's.

Charles got out, did his trout fishing thing "can't spook the fish" and flushed the bandit driver out by desperately flagging down full cabs. He used to be an actor and played the role beautifully.

Charles got into the bogus cab, went up Sutter to Gough and had the man pull over. Eric blocked off the car and politely busted him.

The fake cab driver turned off his meter and told Charles to say that he was only being given a ride. Charles stayed in character and just said, "Hey mon, what's happening?"

The man has gone to a great deal of trouble to make his car look like a cab. The meter even works though it starts at under $3 and goes up faster than a regular meter. After just two blocks it read $4.50.

When the word starts getting out about the $5,000 fines, my guess is that a lot of these guys are going to decide against using their cars to pick up a little extra cash.

Once again, Eric's e-mail address is  Send all the names, license and phone numbers of illegal taxis that you might have his way along with any photos or videos.

Charles and Eric would also like you to call them to report any illegal vehicles you see. During most of the week they work the day shift but they are going to be hunting bandit taxis most Friday or Saturday nights from now on. Eric's cell phone number is 510-867-4694.

Monday, October 10, 2011

What Did the Cabbies Do to Get Themselves Killed?

The above question was asked by a neatly dressed, educated 25-year old man. I answered the question with a question.
 "I don't know - what do women do to get themselves raped?"

The man was "taken aback" by the passion of my response. He mumbled an apology of sorts and said he just wondered what was going on in the driver's lives that led to their being killed. 

Was this an oxymoron or just moronic?

Talk about avoiding the obvious. The fact that a taxi driver carries cash, is supposed to pick everybody up no matter how they look, and can be easily taken to places where there are no witnesses (red dots on map) might have something to do with these murders apparently never occurred to the nice, young man.

What was startling was his unstated assumption that cab drivers are somehow different than he is meaning lower class and living in a culture of violence, or possibly violent themselves.

This is a popular theme on T.V. where the killed cab driver often turns out to be an ex-Serbian torturer who was revenged by his victims, or an ex-gang member or involved in a drug ring. More to the point, perhaps, was a Law and Order re-run where the driver was killed because he 86'd a customer for smoking a cigar in his taxi.

A number of assaults on cab drivers, and possibly murders, do start with analogous situations. A driver was recently assaulted and robbed in San Francisco after he tried to collect a hundred dollar "barf fee" from a customer who had thrown up in his taxi. A similar attack took place in Athens Georgia last August.

If you don't mind a personal note, I've had a few customers throw punches in my direction because I said something they didn't want to hear - like, "stop screaming and get out of my cab!" I've also had two customers who threatened to kill me.

My favorite was a guy who said he'd kill me if I didn't make an illegal left turn from the parking lane on Broadway onto Stockton across four lanes of heavy traffic during rush-hour. Claimed he'd be late for work if I didn't do it. I told him that he should start for work earlier and insisted that he leave my taxi. Talk is cheap. All he did was glare and leave.

But cab drivers frequently are attacked. I could have said exactly the same thing to another man and been by shot or savaged. In my opinion, the difference between being assaulted or not is simply a matter of meeting the wrong person at the wrong time as in this January, 2010 robbery of driver Balvinder Singh near the Castro. But, Mr. Singh survived. Many drivers have not been so lucky.

Twenty-seven taxi drivers were killed in San Francisco between 1947 and 2007 according to the Taxi Library that has been complied by Charles Rathbone, assistant manager of Luxor Cab. I've only personally known one driver who was murdered but I have a little information on a few more cab driver killing:

1969  - Paul Stine, 29, was apparently slain by the infamous Zodiac killer at the Upper middle-class intersection of Washington and Cherry for no rational reason.

1984 - Geogre Ring, mid-forties, was murdered at the then tough intersection of Grove and Scott. It appeared to be a botched robbery with about fifty bloody dollars strewn around in the cab.

1986 - Leonard Smith, 46, was apparently the victim of another botched robbery. He was probably shot in the Western addition. He was driving toward an emergency room when he died.

1989 (D. 1993) - John D. Colman, twenties, was a student who was driving a cab to pay for college. He was hit in the back of the head with a blunt object when he answered a radio call in the Ingleside district. He fell into a coma and died four years later.

1992 - Richard Harcos, forties, was killed at a housing project on Blythehdale Avenue. Harcos had carried the groceries of two elderly women to their apartment and was confronted by half a dozen guys when he got back to his taxi. One of them shot him in the face.

1993 - David Hayes, forties, who drove for City Cab in San Francisco was shot in Richmond, California about an hour after he started his shift at midnight.

He was the one murder victim I knew. He was a small Englishman from Liverpool. He played in bands and knew everything there was to know about rock and roll music. For this reason everyone called him "Star." I never heard his real name until after he was killed. He worked the midnight to morning shift so he could do his gigs first. He often drove me home when I finished working. He was one of the funniest and sweetest guys I've ever met. He was a delightful person to be around. There is no possibility that he confronted anybody.

My guess is that he was killed because he only had the twenty dollars in change on him with which he started every shift.

2002 - Sukpal Singh, 52, was shot at 4 am on 24th St. and Folsom by somebody outside the taxicab. Might have been a hate crime. Might have been a stray bullet. Nobody knows for sure.

I could go on but I hope I've answered the question of what these people did to get themselves killed.  For more information, check out this memoriam for 2,149 murdered cab drivers compiled by Mr. Rathbone.

Mr. Rathbone has also done considerable research on how to prevent homicides.

It is necessary to be careful but it's also sometime hard to know what that means. The problem is to know when, and when not, to be paranoid. One article about the attack on Balvinder Singh, theorized that the fact that Mr. Singh was "lured" up States Street led to his robbery.

And, it's true that States Street is poorly lit, has "little foot traffic and "only one way in and out." But it's also in an upper middle-class neighborhood and is the fastest, cheapest way to go from the Castro to the Haight. I've driven customers up this street hundreds of times. If I didn't use States Street, I wouldn't be doing my job properly.

I think that the most important factor in a cab robbery or a murder is not where you are but who you are with.

Veteran drivers like myself think that we have a special radar that allows us to see who is, and is not, dangerous. But many of the people on the Taxi Library murdered list had driven cabs for years. The rest of us are just damn lucky.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

TAC Votes to Lower Seller's Age to 60

At the September 26, 2011 meeting, the Taxi Advisory Council voted 10 - 4 to recommend (for whatever it's worth) that the SFMTA Board lower the age for medallion sellers from 70 to 60. The legislation would include a 30-day window for potential sellers to agree to sell their medallions and a later 15-day window to decide not to sell once an eligible buyer has been found. 

There were several motivating factors for the vote.

  • According to Mike Harris of Taxi Services, the SFMTA will have exhausted the list of eligible sellers by mid November.
  •  Many of the original potential sellers had declined to sell because they either wanted to use their medallions for a longer length of time or they thought the price would increase. Many of them have since changed their minds and want to sell but are no longer eligible to do so. It's no accident that Carl Macmurdo of the MHA was one of the people pushing for the vote.
  • Most medallion holders and owners want the sales portion of the Pilot Program to continue.
There was some opposition. 
  1. SFCDA President and TAC member Barry Korengold wanted the age to be lowered to only 65 because he thought that lowering it to 60 would reduce the number of medallions available for drivers on the waiting list.
  2. Councilor Rua Graffis of the UTW said that she wouldn't vote for any legislation helping company owners and medallion holders until ordinary drivers had been given retirement and medical benefits.
Personally, although I don't have a vote, I decided to support the age 60 limit (I'm 66 myself) because of a huge change in demographics over the last few years. 

When we were putting the Pilot Plan together, 60 was the original age projected for a seller. It was changed after Taxi Services did a count and found that there were around 600 medallion holders over the age of 60. The people at the Town Hall Meetings reduced the age to 70 primarily because they didn't want to put too many taxis up for sale all at once.

The new figures show that there are now only 168 medallion holders over the age of 60. Selling about 150 medallions a year would be about all the system could handle anyway. Besides, there are only 39 holders between ages 65 and 69 so it didn't seem worth haggling over. Korengold claimed that  it would make all taxis transferable in about five years but my arithmetic makes that closer to ten - providing, of course, that no other medallions are made available for the list, which is unlikely.

The reason for the 30 and 15-day time limits is that numerous original would-be sellers backed out on the sales at the last moment - in one case after a buyer had purchased a car. This made things very difficult for both potential buyers and Taxi Services. 

It's unclear to me, however, whether or not these time limits set up a situation where, if a medallion holder turns down a chance to sell, he or she would never get a chance again???

A New Idea for Drivers on the Waiting List
Richard Moles (photo), who has been driving cab for 26 years but only put his name on the Waiting List 13 years ago, has also put his name on the Buyer's List. He says that he has enough money to buy a medallion but would want his purchase to be made similar to the way ramp taxis are handled now.

What he wants is to be able to buy the medallion but keep his name on the waiting list so that, if an "earned" medallion becomes available, he would be able to sell the one he bought and be given the medallion that he waited and worked so many years to get.

The idea has been received with enthusiasm by many drivers.

On the Agenda

For reasons I don't fully understand the next TAC meeting won't be held until Monday, October 24th, 2011. There are two points of special interest on the agenda.
1. People who have an idea for reforming or modifying the Pilot Program will have a chance to explain their thoughts at the meeting. Chair Chris Sweis wants to receive a written copy of the plan in question by Wednesday, Oct. 19th, 2011. His e-mail address is "Chris Sweis" <> The papers should follow the  format below:

a.       Summary of the proposed industry business model
b.      Negative and positive impacts on:
                                                               i.      Drivers
                                                             ii.      Permit holders
                                                            iii.      Cab companies
                                                           iv.      SFMTA
                                                             v.      Overall service to the public
c.       Transition plan from how we currently operate to the intended model

2. Should the TAC recommend that Taxi Services become a Division within the SFMTA instead of the subdivision that it is now?

This subject was put forth by councilor Bill Minikel (photo) and agreed with by the vast majority of the TAC members. Show up on October 24th to give your input and find out what the recommendation will be.