Wednesday, March 30, 2011

TAC Interim Report: Brain Storm

TAC welcomed Richard Hybels of Metro Cab as a small company councilor replacing Athon Rebelos who, in turn, moves over to take Jane Bolig's position as the Desoto rep. Jane is apparently retiring from cab politics for awhile.

The subject for the day was supposed to be the Interim Report to which Barry Korengold of the SFCDA added an Amended Interim Repot.

But, before the discussion really got underway, Dan Hinds Of National Cab tried to speed up the process by motioning for an immediate vote on whether or not to continue selling medallions to persons 70 and over or disabled and, if the vote was "yes," to have a second vote on whether or not to expand the program to 60 year olds. He also had two other votes in mind if the first two passed.

Instead of speeding thing up, however, the conversation bogged down trying to find a precise definition of the motion. I'll spare you the gruesome details but it reminded me of a freshman philosophy class. ("Perhaps - but how do we know we know what reality is?") After an hour and a half of hair-splitting debate and obfuscation, Dan Hinds no longer understood what his motion was and withdrew it.

During a short break, a driver who was attending the meetings for the first time, walked out muttering, "These guys are deciding our future? The effing idiots can't even take a vote."

When we returned from break, it was a whole different ball game. Chairperson Chris Sweis, with a dazzling display of leadership, took control. He said that the Taxi Advisory Council not only represented the the taxi industry but also "served the public." He said that it was more important to do the report right than fast. He suggested that they begin by making a list of all recommendations that council members thought would improve the cab business.

What follows is the complete list - including several ideas from the general public:

Now all they have to do is put this list into a coherent whole and chose the best options.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

On the Back-seat Terminals: Some Facts?

There is a lot to be said about the back-seat terminals (photo) currently being installed by National, Luxor and Yellow Cabs. Some of it might even be true. (See TaxiTownSF.)

But there are some misconceptions.  I don't claim to be an expert but I will try to clarify a few points.

1. It's not a TV, it's a video terminal and a card swipe.  According to Chris Hayashi, it will have no audio. It will, however, carry advertisements and public service messages. I don't know if it can be turned on and off by the customer.

2. The taxi companies WILL NOT pay for the terminals. The vendors will pay for all equipment and pay for their costs out of the fees collected and advertising revenue.

3. The cab companies WILL NOT share any advertising revenue with the drivers. The vendors will get 90% of the profits above the installation costs and 10% will go to the Drivers Fund.

4. The taxi companies ARE NOT currently allowed to be merchants for credit card accounts ( for obvious reasons), although some companies are requesting the SFMTA to be allowed to be merchant account holders themselves.  The actual cost of the merchant account is closer to 3%, so there is potential profit involved.

5. Despite it's prominence in the field, Verifone will probably not be the only vendor. Any company that meets certain standards set by the MTA could qualify. CMT and Wireless Edge are also planning to compete.

6. Although drivers are required by law to take credit cars, I notice that there is no regulation that says that a driver MUST use a specific credit card cashing system, especially since the drivers are not employees. Drivers are free cash them anywhere or any way they like.
  • Many drivers - especially those at Desoto Cab already have their own merchant accounts.
  • For drivers with smart phones Square - which is a free and charges 2.75% - is a good option.
  • There are other companies on the market with similar or possibly lower rates such as Obopay which claims to charge only 1.5% per transaction and doesn't need a swipe.
  • I understand that the Russian speaking lady near Checker Cab will still be happy to cash receipts for 10%.
7. Taxi companies have the option of not putting in the terminals in which case they are responsible for paying to cash the credit card receipts.

Friday, March 18, 2011

TAC 3-14-2011 Part 2

The rough draft of the TAC report on the Pilot Program was put together by Council Chair Chris Sweis (photo) after going through more than 12 hours of tapes. For this he deserves an award.

However, as councilor Carl Macmurdo and others pointed out, Sweis forgot to include Medallion Holders as one the four primary participants in the S.F. taxi industry. (A Freudian slip? Sweis wouldn't be the first owner of a taxicab company to wish that medallion holders would disappear. ) The Chair admitted that it was an oversight and promised to include a section on medallion holders in an amended draft at the next session.

As for the rest, I simply want to deal with a few points of the draft. You can read the full text in TaxiTownSf.

The discussions at TAC were mostly about the effects on Taxi Companies and Drivers on the waiting list.

1.The major effect on companies was the change from Gates and Gas to Affiliate Leases.
  • In 2003 there were few cabs operated on as Affiliates.
  • By 2010 more than half the taxis were affiliates.
  • 56% of the medallions purchased during the pilot program have chosen to become affiliates.
Sweis and others see this as a negative.
  • G and G operations, according to Sweis, "provide greater control over vehicles and drivers."
  • Loss of G and G medallions "will reduce company revenues and quality control."
  • Companies are losing taxis to Affiliates.
  • Experienced drivers are losing good shifts when Affiliates replace them with less experienced drivers.
  • Which "would lead to a decline of taxi service to the public."

Driver Tone Lee (photo) disputed this claiming that Affiliates and LTLs did a better job because the drivers worked harder and took better care of the cars that they, themselves, purchased.

Gratchia Markanian, the head of Checker Cab, made similar points and predicted that all taxis would someday be Affiliates.

Hansu Kim (photo), on the other hand, who has been strongly in favor of Affiliates, reversed his position and said that taxi companies needed gate and gas arrangement to be profitable. Coincidentally, Kim recently purchased Desoto Cab.

Councilor John Lazar of Luxor Cab said that the frozen gate rates had "killed gates and gas" arrangement. He also said, as he's said before, that new buyers couldn't afford to work under gate and gas because their loan payments were too high.

I have a few problems with these arguments - namely that neither one of them appears to be true.
  • The payments on a 15 years loan are $1,798 per month. The lowest amount that a GG medallion holder is paid is $1,800 per month and the highest is $2,400 per month. In addition a medallion is worth $5,000 to $10,000 per year in better shifts etc. What can't they afford?
  • If the cab companies are so strapped for cash, how come they are engaging in medallion bidding wars?
Companies are currently offering bonuses as high as $5,000 and medallion payments as high as $2,400 a month to wrest medallion away from each other. If they're so broke, where are they getting the money for their campaigns?

In the end, they passed a motion by 10 to 4 to have all cabs that are awarded to drivers on the list to be worked as Gates and Gas for the first three years.

Next: The effect on Drivers.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

TAC 3-14-2011

The  above photo contains all the Taxi Advisory Council members except Jane Bolig and Bill Minikel's head. (Sorry Bill.) The seating arrangement is ad hoc because someone else was using the room. From the audience/public aspect it's infinitely superior to sitting at the end of a table where you can't see faces or hear anybody talk. It would be nice if they kept a similar arrangement in the future. But that's an opinion.

Most of the meeting was taken up with the TAC report to the MTA on the Pilot Program.  But first some numbers.

SF Credit Union as of 2-28-11
  • 65 Loan applications approved.
  • 0 Declined.
  • 45 Sales finalized that required financing.
  • 30 Borrowers had the 20% down payment.
  • 15 needed Down Payment Assistance.
  • $35,000 = Average Down Payment Assistance amount.
Taxi Services as of 3-14-11
  • 56 Medallions transferred.
  • 37 Transferred from a Medallion Holder to a New Buyer.
  • 19 Transferred directly from SFMTA to a New buyer.
Monetary Distribution as of 3-14-11
  • $4,496,077 ($250,000 -5% = $237,500 x19) to SFMTA from direct sales to New Buyers.
  • $1,387,500 (15% of %250,000 = $37,500 x37) to SFMTA from Seller to Buyer transferres.
  • $700,000 (5% of $250,000 = $12,500 X56) to Drivers Fund.
  • $100,820 in Taxi Wrap Fund which will eventually go to the Drivers Fund.
Random Facts
  • 7 Sales transactions closed since last report. 
  • 11 Approved
  • 235 Number of Medallion Holders age 60 to 64.
  • 174 Number of Medallion Holders age 65 to 69.
  • 409 Total of Medallion Holder age 60 to 69.
One interesting point is the fact no applicant has been turned down for  a loan. This is amazing in itself. But it is also a rebuttal to the those last year who argued against selling medallion because nobody but loan sharks would give cab drivers money.

These two sheets don't quite match up but the most significant number for many at the meeting was left out.
      20 Medallions have been given out to working Drivers who have earned them by being on the list.

Leaving this out made it look as if the SFMTA wasn't keeping it's word on giving one medallion to the MTA and one to the list until they both equal 60. But the actual count is:
  • 20 to the List.
  • 19 to the SFMTA.

Nonetheless the List is moving very slowly - a matter of great concern to Councilor Bill Mownsey and many others on the List who have been waiting for a decade and a half.

More on that later when we get into the actual report.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Wesley Hollis Justifies Credit Card Charges.

Wesley Hollis of Executive Cab answer me back in John Han's blog.

You will note that Hollis the sets the record straight by writing, "...Town Taxi has always charged a flat 5% on their credit card sales.  I have to turn in my MDT credit card sales to Town Taxi."

Of course this is currently illegal but that appears to be a minor point (sort of like being left-handed) in the taxicab business.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Backseat Swipes and Legal Charges

Beginning now with National Cab and soon with Luxor, the San Francisco taxicab fleet is converting to rear-seat, credit card/information terminals.

Among other things the new technology will have the ability to:
  • Decline or authorize credit cards or Paratransit Debit Cards.
  • Break down charges (meter fare, bridge tolls, airport fees, tips, etc)
  • Keep electronic waybill data.
  • Touch screen.
  • Keep numerous statistics.

These terminals will allow advertising under certain conditions:
  • There will be NO AUDIO.
  • Installation costs will be paid for from revenue and not charged to color schemes.
  • Ten percent of the advertising revenue is to be paid into the Driver Fund.
  • The content of the terminals will include a percentage of public service announcements. 
Drivers can be charged up to 5% of the credit card receipts:
  • There will be merchant accounts set up at a bank for each driver and the fares must be transferred to that account within two business days of payment.
  • These accounts must be allow the driver to withdraw funds at ATM machines.
  • The terminals must have the ability to display buttons that suggest tips based on the fare at the end of the trip.
There is lot more involved of course but, for me, these are the highlights.

Legal fees

Charging the fees to drivers will be a sticking point for some but a relief for others. Those paying 10% to 12% should like the new arrangement. Those, like myself, who currently pay no fees will bitch.

Actually some of us have already bitched long and loud to Director of Taxi Services Christiane Hayashi. Many at the TAC meetings - especially Barry Korengold - were strongly against passing the fee onto drivers. But, to no avail.

The merchant account agreements with credit card companies do no allow the charges to be passed on to the customer. However, there are aspect of this that might either be not so bad or maybe even good.

Not So Bad
  • According to (soon to be/current) Desoto owner Hansu Kim studies have shown that the prompts on these terminals encourage customers to tip larger than before - much more than enough to cover the 5% charge.
  • Of course Kim has some connection with Veriphone - one of the companies that owns the terminals. I've done my own research both by talking to customers who have used the system in New York and my own experience of using a front seat terminal (see photo) at Green Cab.
  • The people from New York agree that they tend to tip more and my customers at Green are also tipping higher with the new terminal. They can see all the data and, if they sit in the front seat, they like playing with the gadget and this stimulates them to tip more generously.
  • The new arrangement will allow the above-board taxicab companies to profit by not having to pay the fees that they have been paying for the last several years.
  • Last but not lease - taxicab companies aren't allowed to be merchants so they won't be tempted to misuse driver's money.
Maybe Even Good
  • If they had passed on credit card charges to the public, the MTA would probably be less likely to:
  • Agree to a meter increase.
  • Agree to an added fee for taking radio calls.
One  negative aspect that is the fate of that poor, Russian-speaking lady at the shed near Checker Cab. She'll be out of a job and probably doesn't qualify for Unemployment Insurance.

        Friday, March 11, 2011

        Credit Card Charges: Illegal

        It is currently illegal for taxi companies to charge drivers for cashing credit card slips. Period. 

        Illegal? So what?

        The illegality of credit card charges means little to the hundreds of cab drivers who are forced to pay fees as high as 10% or 12% to get cash back for their receipts.

        Taxi Services Enforcement and Legal Affairs Manager Jarvis Murray, in fact, is looking into complaints against various taxicab companies for charging their drivers fees to cash their receipts.

        Jarvis said that it is an ongoing investigation so he couldn't give me the names. But he did say that Luxor Cab, Yellow Cab and Green Cab do not charge for cashing the slips.

        In any case, the anonymity of the offending companies will end soon.

        At the last TAC meeting Councilor John Lazar of Luxor Cab insisted that Director Christiane Hayashi provide the names of these companies to the council and she agreed to do so at the Monday 3-14-11 meeting.

        As a preview, I've been told by drivers that Royal, Town Taxi and Checker have all been charging 10% for the service.

        At Checker, drivers go to a shed on the property where a Russian speaking woman cashes the receipts. Royal drivers were being sent to the same shed but rumor has it that Royal isn't using her services anymore. Town Taxi has recently reduced it's charge from 10% to 5%. Regent Cab, the other hand, discourages it's drivers from taking credit cards - also a violation of the rules.

        Since the fees from the credit card companies are usually 3% or less, the Taxi companies are making themselves a hefty profit from these exchanges - with the money, of course, being taken from working drivers.

        Many drivers simply don't take credit cards for this reason, putting themselves at risk for citations and and annoying the public.
        Tmw - The new backseat terminals and legal charges.

        Wednesday, March 9, 2011

        Supes Pass Watered Down Enforcement Against Illegal Cabs et al

        At yesterday's Board of Supervisors meeting, the board unanimously voted to pass their watered down version of legislation making it a misdemeanor to operate illegal taxis or limos, or to solicit or accept payment for referral of passengers, or assignment of shifts or dispatched calls, or other illegal activities that suck money off of legitimate cab drivers and both cheat and endanger the general public.

        The Supes voted to okay their own amended version of the ordinance that lessened the penalties that the police can give from $2,500 and $5,000 to $1,000.

        A confused message: crime doesn't pay ... too much.

        Whatever - as my mother used to say, "it's better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick."

        The legislation will allow MTA investigators to issue tickets to illegal vehicles et al. Taxi Services Director Christiane Hayashi hopes to hire two full time investigators who can devote all their energy to enforcing the laws against illegal cabs, sticky palmed doormen and the like. This will mark the first time that anyone has seriously and systematically gone after these felons.

        The Board of Supervisors also passed a resolution supporting Peak-Hour Taxi Permits.

        Saturday, March 5, 2011

        The Uniform Lease: Part One

        The February 21, 2011 Town Hall meetings for drafting a "Uniform Lease" was lead by Director of Taxi Services Christiane Hayashi with help from Enforcement and Legal Affairs Manager Jarvis Murray. The evening session was attended by the UTW's Mark Gruberg, Bay Cab's Roger Cardenas, Frank Fahey, Murai, myself and others along with TAC members Athan Rebelos, John Han and Bill Mounsey.

        A document had already been outlined during the afternoon session from various existing leases including those from Green and Yellow cab companies.

        The thrust of the "Uniform Lease" was to continue the myth of the "Independent Contract" while attempting to give drivers more protections and rights than they have now (not a difficult task).

        Myth? The Independent Contract was intended as a agreement between people or groups with more or less equal power. It is an accurate description of the relationship between taxi companies and medallion holders. However, applying this concept of independence to groups of non-medallion holding drivers who are powerless and (from the companies' standpoints) infinitely replaceable is to create a fictional misrepresentation of reality.

        The absurdity of this fantasy becomes clear in the first two definitions of a section called,

        Employee/ Independent Contractor status
        1. Driver will not be treated as an employee for any purpose, including state and federal income taxes, the Unemployment Tax Act, and company will not withhold taxes.
        2. Driver has a right to apply for Worker's Compensation and Unemployment benefits under California law. Company will not oppose any claim for such benefits on the the basis that the driver in an independent contractor. (My italics.)

        But I digress. For the moment, this Uniform Lease is to be between drivers and color schemes

        Color Scheme Agrees

             To provide, maintain and insure a Vehicle in good condition and to provide a spare if the vehicle breaks down. Etc.

             The company also agrees -
        • Driver has absolute and exclusive rights to use, operate and control a licensed San Francisco Taxicab ...
        • Driver also "has complete discretion" as to how, if and when to work; when and if to take breaks.
        • Driver is also not required to report locations to the company or take or respond to dispatched calls.
        All of which, as John Han pointed out, define the driver as independent contractor. Han went on to say that he thought drivers should actually be treated as employees.

        Director Hayashi responded by saying that she thought that doing so would "require tearing the industry apart and putting it back together again in a different way because the current model does not assume employee status and cannot economically support it."

        John said that such a tear down and re-assemble might be a good idea.

        Required Driver Conduct

        Driver Agrees
        • To maintain the required licenses and permits.
        • Take care of tickets.
        • Inspect the vehicles before using them.
        • Report any collisions or anything else that might risk liability to the companies.
        • Etc


        The proposed contract would be an automatically renewable 30 day contract that could only be ended by a 30 day notice and/or must have cause.

        This last clause is different than many current contracts which state that the contracts can be terminated without cause - a situation that gives tremendous power to the companies.

        Under the Uniform Contract

        The driver could Terminate for Cause
        • A material breach of lease terms
        • If the driver has notified the company of unsafe vehicles or conditions and the company fails to correct said conditions
        The Company could Terminate for Cause
        • A material breach of lease terms
        • Driving under the influence or reckless driving.
        • Fail to report an accident.
        • Etc

        Next -

        Security deposits - Yes but?

        Pre-pay by 28 days - No

        Vacation /sick time

        Mediation Resolution?

        Pro rata - probably

        Driver training - definitely

        The photo has nothing to do with leasing but for some reason I kept thinking about this Chinese mountain lake during the discussions and I thought I'd share it with you.

        Tuesday, March 1, 2011

        MTA Board OK's Peak Time Cabs; Supes Spank Cabbies

        The MTA Board and the Board of Supervisor both met yesterday and both dealt with similar cab issues - changing and clarifying the transportation code so that it would be easier to stop illegal activities - including doormen selling rides to illegal vehicles and illegal cabs and limos stealing rides from licensed taxicabs in San Francisco.

        The legislation had the support of almost everybody in the taxi industry (drivers, owners, managers and medallion holders/drivers). It seemed like no-brainer and, for the MTA, it was. Malcom Heinicke spoke highly of the measure.

        The Board of Supervisors, however, had a different take on the subject. Two amendments were added to the legislation by Supervisor Scott Wiener of District 8. One of them called for Taxi Services to report about progress in improving service 4 times a year. The other called for reducing penalties given to illegal limos and cabs from $2,500 to $5,000 down to $1,000.

        Directory of Taxi Services, Christiane Hayahsi was unable to attend the meeting because she had jury duty. Attorney Michael Harris was supposed to speak in her place but apparently was unable to do so because the amendments were approved prior to the meeting.

        Nothing like transparency, no?

        What was the reasoning of Supervisor Wiener and the rest of the Board? The illegal vehicles are supposedly filling a niche and thus doing a public service???

        There is more than a bit of irony here:
        1. Supervisor Wiener is from the Castro - that's right! The second or third best served district in San Francisco. Cabs flood the area 90% of the time and I've never seem an illegal taxi there. Well ... everyone has their servant problems.
        2. The amendment would give tacit support to a group of people who pay no license fees or business taxes and put customers at risk by not being insured. Or, is the paltry $1,000 Wiener's idea of a business tax?
        3. The only service I've ever seen illegal taxis and limos do is steal my fares - often with the collusion of doormen who apparently would also have their fines reduced.
        4. The only reason illegal cabs and limos have a niche is for the same reason prostitutes do - their expenses are almost non-existant and nobody has systematically gone after them.
        5. After backing the amendment, members of the Board spent a fair amount of time urging each other to support low-paid workers of various kinds. Apparently they don't think cab drivers, who are among the lowest paid workers doing one of the most dangerous jobs in the country, are worthy of such consideration.
        This isn't a done deal. The proposal with the amendment has to be "read" again at next week's board meeting and then will be voted on the week after that. As I understand it, unless the legislation goes back to a subcommittee, there will be no public comment allowed on the subject.

        This might be a good time to remind our respective supervisors that we are not the uncouth, illiterate serfs that they appear to think we are. It might be good to let them know that we are voters - voters who talk to around 15 or 20 other voters each every day. ( The math is 1500 cabs x 2 shifts x 20 = 60,000 potential voters a day.)

        Drivers can find the phone numbers and e-mail addresses of their respective supervisors at You can find the voters in your taxis.

        Peak Time Permits

        The MTA Board also passed a resolution to send a proposal for Peak Time Permits to the Taxi advisory Council in order to work out a plan.

        Director Malcom Heinicke was very happy because this was his baby and he was very pleased to see drivers as different as Tone Lee, Carl Macmurdo and myself all backing the idea.

        However, there were, and are many drivers, who are strongly against putting additional cabs on the street - including possibly myself. My position depends upon what they do, how they do it, and who benefits from it. The devil is in the details.

        At any rate, the TAC meetings should be interesting for a change. The next one's  on March 15th - the  Ides of March - the date when Julius Caesar was assassinated in 44 B.C.

        Should we beware the Ides of March?