Thursday, April 28, 2011

Open Taxi Access Killed?

There were strange goings on at the SFMTA back on April 11th and 12th.

There was supposed to be a hearing on Open Taxi Access (OTA) held by the MTA's Policy and Governance Committee at 9 am on April 12, 2011. Instead, some people were informed (misinformed?) on April 11th that the agenda item was being postponed. Then the item was apparently discussed anyway and tabled.

I wasn't paying the matter much attention because I was under the impression that OTA was a done deal. So all I'm doing is passing on rumors.

Depending upon who you talked to, the matter was;
  1. Tabled by Mayor Ed Lee because he didn't want to spend $405,000.
  2. Send back to TAC for discussion by MTA board member Jerry Lee for the same reason.
  3. Killed by President and General Manager of Luxor Cab John Lazar's huge back-door presence.
This might be a delaying tactic but if so why? TAC has already discussed OTA and most of the councilors appear to be in favor it.

On the other hand, there is little doubt that John Lazar feels threatened by Cabulous and thinks that giving OTA city money would undermine his own application, Taxi Magic, and thus hurt his business.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Tip Prompting: Will It Make Drivers More Money?

I guess I'll add my two cents to the debate that has been well (but not totally) covered by John Han in TaxiTownsf. There are a few things  that John failed to touch upon.

Why the back-seat terminals?

The main reason why Deputy Director of Taxi Services Christiane Hayashi chose to have the VeriFone back-seat terminals installed was that she was convinced that customers would tip more because of tip prompting built into the PIM units.

It was supposed to be a classic Hayashi "something-for-everyone" scenario: the companies would save millions of dollars per year by not paying credit card fees. The drivers would make much more than the 5% that they would have to pay. "Win-Win."


What Hayashi failed to foresee was the hostility on the part of the drivers to the very idea of paying credit card fees at all. Most of them can't get beyond the fact that they have to pay 5% and simply don't believe VeriFone's claims.

In fact, I don't think I've seen minds this closed since my childhood in the 1950's when my neighbors were shocked by troublemakers claiming that black people were just as good as whites. An extreme example, it's true, but the sense of outrage and the unwilling to even entertain the possibility that Hayashi might be right are much the same. No less a personage than John Han himself told me that VeriFone's claims were wrong before he'd ever looked at one of their terminals.

Reason's for the Hostility

Most taxi companies, like Luxor and Yellow, are already coercing a minimum of 10% of their drivers incomes in the forms of tips and other scams. The drivers can't or won't complain about this because they are afraid of not being able to get a shift or of being fired.

You add another 5% to this 10% and figure becomes substantial - almost like a social security tax. But, this 5% is dictated by the MTA, not the companies, so it give the drivers a safe outlet for their frustration and their fury. They can scream all they want at Chris Hayashi or Nat Ford and still keep their jobs.

Another source of angst are the merchant accounts set up by Yellow and Luxor that reputedly hit the drivers up for bogus fees and charges.

What Me Worry?

It has been pointed out that I'm not only a medallion holder but I work for Green Cab. Now - that's what I call a "win-win" in this situation. I don't have to pay any fees and, according to Han's post, in the long run I could end up befitting in other ways.

However, being out of the line of fire does have it's good points. Not having a direct stake (at least not in the short term) in the debate allows me to keep a calm frame of mind. I can perhaps look at both sides of the question without becoming hysterical.

Anecdotal Evidence -  Drivers

I'm getting second hand reports of drivers claiming that they are getting tipped less than they were before and that they are sometimes being stiffed. And, I'm sure that John Han will soon regal his readers with more such tales.

But, I confess that I'm a bit dubious about these claims. Not that I doubt their truth. What I'm not sure of is whether or not they mean anything. I have some questions:

  • Do the people making these claims actually keep records of their tips from the past?
  • Have they never been stiffed before on a credit card?
  • Attitude is so important in getting a tip. Are these drivers saying things like, "the damn companies are screwin' us again. They made us install these effing back-seat terminals. Nobody's tippin' me. You got cash?" Such outbursts might have a negative effect on your income.
  • Do you realize that this is April? The slowest month of the year. For those of you who keep records, do you get the same tips in April that you do in October.
The fact is that it would take about three to six months to make a study that meant anything and at least a month to make a meaningful comparison between those with back-seat terminals and those without. 

Fortunately, we have just such a study taking place.  And, if those of you who do keep records (especially before and after back-seat terminal records) could make them available, an answer to the question - Do the back-seat terminals stimulate more 5% in tips? - might be found.

Personally, I'm looking forward to finding the truth. If the back-seat terminals actually do improve driver income, I'm going to urge Green to put them in.

Anecdotal Evidence - My Own Experience

The above image of the bitching cab driver didn't come solely from my imagination. I've had a number of customers lately who have complained about drivers with the back-seat terminals either whining about the units or refusing to take credit cards.

"I'd have given him a big tip," one attractive woman told me, "but the jerk wouldn't take my card."

Instead, she gave the big tip to me. In fact, my tips from customers who'd been whinged at by back-seat terminal cab drivers is about 10% above normal.

Not that I'd be so dictatorial as to suggest a change in attitude among other drivers.

I've started keeping records and my own experience of using a dashboard PIM unit is that I get tipped better in cash. I mean, a random customer might throw a twenty at me for an $8.50 ride but this almost never happens on a credit card.  I'd estimate that my credit card tips are about 10% less than my cash tips and also about 10% less than I thought they'd be.

But ... it's still April.

Anecdotal Evidence - New Yorkers

For whatever it's worth, I've been asking both New Yorkers and frequent Big Apple visitors what they thought of the back-seat terminals. The response has generally been enthusiastically in favor of them. The only complaint has been about the advertising. One woman told me that the first thing she does when she gets in the cab is turn off the damn TV.

Without exception, the dozen or so people I queried said that they tipped more on the back-seat terminals. This is an option that is backed up by UTW Rua Graffis  (hardly a Hansu Kim groupie) who says that New York drivers tell her that, indeed, they get tipped better than they did BT - before back-seat terminals.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

MTA Board Meeting; or How to Make Gridlock

At the 4-18 MTA Board meeting, Director Nat Ford announced three all-day Town Hall Meetings that appear to be the result of cab driver Tariq Mehmood's uprising at the previous Board meeting. The subjects of meetings will be:
  1. Electronic waybills.
  2. Credit Cards.
  3. Possible meter increase.
Ford did not announce the dates  but he did say that they would be conducted by somebody named "staff." Hopefully, this means that Deputy Director Chris Hayashi will be back from vacation to lead them because, if nothing else, she is a true master at such things.

I haven't been to one of these Board meetings in a long time but, after seeing this one, I'm beginning to understand Emile Lawrence.

Emile used to write a newspaper column called the Midnight Cabbie. He went back to school, got a bookkeeping degree but couldn't get a job. He went back to taxi driving and used to show up at the Board meetings to yell at Ford for not hiring him as a bookkeeper. Very entertaining.

Not that I approve of yelling at the Executive Director but, after witnessing the irrationality of the Board's decision making process last Tuesday, I wanted to scream at somebody.

The particular case in point was the Board's decision to turn to Hayes into a two-way street between Van Ness and Gough. In order to reduce the overflow, they planned to channel part of the traffic south onto Van Ness and then change Fell into a two way street between Van Ness and Franklin so that the traffic on Van Ness could take a right turn onto one lane on Fell in order to head to the Sunset.

You professional drivers have doubtless already recognized this as insane. An intelligent ten year old could tell you that this would result in grid-lock on Hayes, Fell and Van Ness. In fact, if you set out to deliberately shut down the area, you'd be hard pressed to find a better way to do it. The only thing that would beat it would be to change Van Ness south into a dead end street - but this plan would effectively do that anyway.

This appeared to be the brainchild of Director Cheryl Brinkman who likes to bicycle and walk and, ironically, is the former chair of the Board of Directors of Livable City San Francisco. She said that she held a meeting at (I think) the Hayes Valley Community Center and nobody spoke against the plan.

She did not mention whether or not she went to the community centers of the Haight or the Richmond or the Sunset or the Parkside and asked the thousands of people that would be brutalized by the plan how they liked the idea of spending a hellish extra hour or two each week on their commutes so that the a couple of hundred people in Hayes Valley might lead more livable lives. But, then, she didn't have to.

A nice young man, appropriately attired in a dark suit, presented a study to justify the plan. He had calculated the number of cars that go up Hayes, then turn on Franklin and Gough. He hadn't bothered to calculate the number of cars on Van Ness heading south or the number on Fell between Franklin and Van Ness. Nor had he bothered to estimate the number of vehicles on Market that were going be stalled at the inter-section of 9th, Market, Hayes and Larkin by the traffic backing up from Van Ness. Nor did he calculate the cost of hiring traffic control officers at said intersection for four hours a day as the only hope of allowing the cars and buses to pass through.

At one point, he said that he wasn't sure where the cars would go. "Maybe they'll go up Larkin," he said vaguely. Needless to say he hadn't calculated the number of cars that currently go up Larkin during rush hour or he would've already known where the cars will go.

They'll go nowhere!

And, of course, he failed to estimate the additional emissions and fumes, the enlarged carbon footprint, that would be poured into the atmosphere by the impeded vehicles and the lengthening of the commutes.

The only member of the MTA Board to vote against the measure was Director Malcom Heinicke.

You know what frightens me about all this?

It's the possibility that the MTA Board was not paid off by the Hayes Valley merchants and that they really think this is a workable idea.


Saturday, April 16, 2011

Back-Seat vs Front-Seat Tipping: A Competition

Aside from the potential problem of glowing cab drivers and the desire of many to live anonymous lives, the major objection to the back-seat terminals revolves around the 5% charge.

According to Director Hayashi, the main reason that she insisted on the back-seat terminals is that VeriFone's studies had convinced her that their prompting system would make drivers more money.

Most cab drivers, on the other hand, are convinced that this is marketing hogwash. It's amazing how firmly held this opinion is. Drivers who have never even seen the back-seat units, swear that they won't work.

Almost every driver I've talked with tells me that they already get great tips because they have wonderful personalities and are unusually good looking. But, so far, I haven't found a single driver who has records to back this up. I include myself in this category. I'm hot and charming - yet I don't have any numbers to prove the effects of my dynamic personality.

And, even if I did have the numbers, who is to say that I wouldn't do even better with a back-seat terminal?

I called up Hansu Kim, President of Desoto Cab and VeriFone consultant, and suggested that he have a competition with, say, Green Cab to prove that the back-seat terminals are better.

Kim enthusiastically embraced the idea, saying that he "would make a bet with me that Green would put in the PIM units when they fully realized that their drivers would make more money."

I then went over to Green Cab, where I work, and asked Mark Gruberg what he thought of the idea. Mark said that he'd already been thinking about something along those lines and was eager for the contest.

To clarify: the contest would be whether the front-seat or the back-seat terminals prompt a higher tipping percentage.

I think that Kim and Gruberg should be working out the details soon.

Let the competition begin!

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Why I Am Not Standing with "THE" Drivers

A long-time, cab-driving friend of mine demanded to know why I "chose not to stand with the drivers" on the issues of their recent MTA protest and also demanded to know "who appointed" me to defend Chris Hayashi.

The fanatical, "you're either for us or against us,""she's guilty - why waste money on a trial?" tone of my friends interrogation pretty much answers these questions by itself. I was right. The protest was an ambush. And, the fact that my friend, who is ordinarily intelligent and thoughtful, should be so filled with anger and fear that she wouldn't even listen to another point of view is yet another reason for me to stand against "THE drivers."

As for the Deputy Director, when you consider all the things she's done for the taxi industry and the drivers, she shouldn't have to be defended for trying to create another "win-win" solution to a difficult problem.

More reasons why I don't stand with THE drivers.
  1. There is no such thing as THE cab drivers in San Francisco. We are contentious group. There is no one, or no one group, that speaks for us. The claims made by the protesters of representing 5,000 drivers is completely bogus.
  2. "THE drivers" who showed up were attacking on the basis of half-truths, hysterical fears and misinformation. 
  3. Screaming and shouting is rarely conducive to clear thought.
  4. I stopped letting other people do my thinking for me when I was 15 years old and made the mistake of telling a burly Christian Brother that I thought there was no God.
  5. In short, the day that I let Mary McGuire and Tariq Mahmood decide what my opinions should be will be a long, cold day in hell.
I've been a cab driver for over twenty-five years and I've always found that one of the greatest virtues of my fellow professionals is that they do think for themselves.

Therefore, whenever I speak my mind, I am standing up for THE cab drivers of San Francisco.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Tariq Mehmood Stages Bitch-In at the SFMTA

Cab driver Tariq Mehmood (photo) doesn't like Director of Taxi Services, Christiane Hayashi. There are two reasons for this: 

1. Hayashi closed the Waiting List to new applicants last year in order to protect the seniority of long time drivers who had not put their names on the list before. Although Mehmood has driven for many years, he never put his name on the list but would be relatively low in seniority. He wanted to jump on the List before it closed and didn't get the chance - meaning that it will be a long time before Tariq will be eligible to own a cab. 
2. She neglected to put Mehmood on the Taxi Advisory Council.

Mehmood has repeatedly and bitterly complained about these things at  numerous SFMTA Board meetings. Last December he tried to make a major issue out of people waiting in line to renew their A-Cards - a problem that Hayashi had already solved as well as she could and one that won't be a problem in the future.

Yesterday, Mehmood finally had his moment in the sun when he led of group of angry, largely misinformed drivers on a rant against credit card charges, electronic waybills and in-cab video cameras.

Although the drivers raised some valid issues that should be considered, the tone of the protest was decidedly irrational and hostile.

At one point, trying to respond to a surge of shouting drivers led by Mehmood, Hayashi backed up against a railing. If she had fallen over the railing, she could have dropped one story and been seriously injured, if not killed.

The irony is that Hayashi has tried to put the back seat terminals and the video camera in for the purpose of helping some of the very drivers who were harassing her.
  • Almost half the drivers in San Francisco are already being illegally charged 5% to 10% by Checker Cab, Royal Cab and Town Taxi others. The back seat terminals are intended to put an end to this.
  • The PIM's in question are designed to prompt customers to tip large. Hayashi has seen studies showing that passengers who use these units tip 30% more than normal. That is - drivers should make more even after paying the 5% than they would make without the terminals.
  • The in-cab video cameras are there to protect the drivers.
The fact is that Chris Hayashi is the biggest driver advocate around. She has written and had legislation passed making tipping and other corrupt taxi company practices illegal. She has written and had legislation passed that will allow Taxi Services to effectively fight illegal limos and taxis for the first time. And, after more than a year of pusing for them, she has finally gotten a couple of investigators to sic on the bad guys.

I would also like to point out for the umteenth time that the Drivers Fund wouldn't exist and the Waiting List would no longer exist had it not been for Hayashi's lobbying on their behalf. Indeed, I doubt that the Pilot Plan would exist had it not been for her extraordinary intelligence, dedication and negotiating skills. 

One other thing - these protesting drivers - many of whom have never been seen at a meeting before - seemed to be thought of the real cab drivers of San Francisco by Malcolm Heinicke. Yet this was clearly an ambush designed by Mehmood and fueled with misinformation and half truths.

How did these guys become more real than those of us who've taken the trouble to be at the various meeting and actually study the text of the proposals in question?

Do they really represent us? Or, do they just fit the "cabbie" stereotype of being loud, unthinking and out of control? 

Monday, April 4, 2011


The Taxi Advisory Council is still collecting data and reviewing some effects of the Pilot Program so far.   Because of delays in the implementation of the program and the many issues presented to the council, we have not yet discussed long term medallion reform.  I feel much further thought and discussion is necessary before making a final recommendation to the SFMTA  Board.

There are many who would like to see all medallions eventually transferable.  I would like to point out that if all medallions become transferable, there will no longer be the advantage of jumping the line by purchasing.  Everyone will have to wait again, only now when their name comes up, they'll have to split their medallion income with the bank.  This will exclude many older veteran drivers from owning a medallion.  We therefore feel a significant cap on the number of transferable medallions is essential.

Barry Korengold
President, SFCDA
Vice Chair, Taxi Advisory Council

Medallion Reform Proposal by the San Francisco Cab Drivers Association

We believe that as in most occupations, career cab drivers deserve a dignified end to their career. This plan will benefit a broad spectrum of interests. It will benefit the city by putting money into the SFMTA, it will benefit all cab drivers by contributing money to the driver's fund, maintaining gas and gate shifts, as well as continuing San Francisco’s long honored system of earning a medallion through time spent on the road, rather than by having to go hundreds of thousands of dollars into debt. This plan will keep medallions going to veteran drivers at the top of the list and allows for elder and disabled medallion holders to reduce or eliminate their driving requirement or to sell their medallion. It benefits the public by maintaining quality, career cabdrivers in the industry.

We feel that although purchasing a medallion might be a good choice for some younger drivers early in their careers, many other drivers have already invested 20 years or more of their lives servicing the public for low pay, long hours, with no benefits, doing one of the most dangerous jobs in the country. Therefore, there needs to be a way for drivers who have made a career of driving a cab to be able to obtain a medallion.

In order for medallions to continue going to veteran drivers, as has been the respected practice in San Francisco for the last 32 years, there needs to be a cap on the number of transferable medallions. We suggest a third. Because of the slow movement of the list, we feel two thirds of the medallions should continue to go to the top of the list without purchase. When new medallions are issued, one third of that number would become transferable. In other words, if 30 medallions are issued, 10 more medallions could become transferable.

The City should sell no more medallions outright, as each one deprives a career working cab driver from obtaining their medallion, which can be compared in other industries with tenure or a management position after usually at least 20 years on the road.

We propose that when a medallion holder reaches the age of 55, the driving requirement could be voluntarily reduced to 600 hours and the holder would contribute $100 a month or $1,200 a year to be split between the SFMTA and the Drivers Fund.

When a medallion holder reaches the age of 60, the driving requirement could voluntarily be reduced to 400 hours and a contribution of $200 a month ($2,400 a year) would be split between the SFMTA and the Drivers Fund.

When a medallion holder reaches 65 or becomes disabled, the driving requirement could voluntarily be eliminated with a $400 monthly contribution ($4,800 a year) to the SFMTA and the Drivers Fund. The medallion holder would still retain the medallion and still be able to drive.

To allow for inflation and market changes, these payments could also be set at a comparable percentage to medallion income instead of a dollar figure.

All reduced or eliminated driving requirement medallions would be run as a gate and gas cabs. This would create stability for companies as well as maintain available shifts for drivers.

A medallion holder would have the option to sell when they reach 65. If they chose to hold on to their medallion with a reduced or eliminated driving requirement, they would retain their medallion the rest of their lives, but would no longer have the option to sell. When these medallion holders die, their medallions would go back to the list. A medallion holder over 65 who continues driving, could make their decision at the time they wish to stop driving.

Since there would be a cap on transferable medallions, eventually there could be a waiting list to sell. A qualified medallion holder waiting to sell would not have to pay to eliminate their driving requirement until able to so, at which time they would make their decision.

We’d like to make this comparison of revenue from the current transfer fee of $50,000 per medallion to the revenue from this Limited Driving Requirement plan. With the amount of debt undertaken when buying a medallion, the purchaser will likely hold onto their new medallion for more than 10 years, probably closer to 20 or 30 years. After 10 years of participation in our recommended program, a 75 year old driver will have contributed $48,000 to the SFMTA and the Drivers Fund. If the same driver took advantage of the plan starting at the age of 55 he will have paid in $66,000, and still be contributing to the fund and the SFMTA.

We feel this plan is healthier for the industry overall. It will allow senior and disabled medallion holders to stop driving and allows older career drivers to still obtain a medallion. This will also help color schemes maintain gas and gate medallions, and provide more available shifts for non-medallion holding drivers.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Fighting Parking Tickets

An article in the Examiner gives you a place to vent about your parking tickets There are actually many sites, one of them on Yelp.
Another is called The Expired Meter.
I've personally had a fair amount of success fighting tickets - parking and moving.

I was ticketed twice in front of my house for not having my wheels turned away from the curb on a hill. Yes - but as you can see from the photo there is no curb and, when there is no curb, you are supposed to turn your wheels away from the street.

It took me 6 months to beat these tickets but that's okay because they don't charge interest until they (the Supreme Parking Court) makes a final decision. They rejected my dispute through the mail but, when I went in person to the august MTA, I won the battle with my photos and a copy of the Driver's Handbook. The "judge" I spoke with didn't the know the law himself and thanked me for teaching it to him. I haven't been hit with this particular bogus ticket since.

Always fight. Take pictures and quote the law. Remember cops, especially parking cops, often don't know the law that they think that they are enforcing. If you know the law, it gives you an edge.

I repeat - fight! I've won about 75% of the time. Fight even if you're guilty. Don't they ticket you when you're innocent? Remember - a good story can trump a bad law. Fight! Fight! Fight!

Friday, April 1, 2011

Back Seat Terminals: Demonstrated

Athan Rebelos (photo, person) and Hansu Kim (photo, hands) were kind enough to show me the VeriFone PIMs at Desoto Cab Thursday.

I now understand that I made some mistakes in my previous post on the subject. For one thing, the terminals will broadcast ABC news feeds so, indeed, they can be described as TVs. (I'll mention another misconception later in the post.)

I came as a skeptic. I wasn't convinced that customers would tip more and I was very concerned about drivers not being able to control the sound.

In fact, I felt that, if I couldn't turn off the sound, I didn't want the damn thing in my cab.

The truth, as it turns out, isn't quite so simple.

  • There are sound control arrows on the front seat terminal that Athan is pointing at in the picture and the driver can turn the sound all the way off.
  • The ads and the public service announcements will NOT have sound.
  • However - the caveat - the customer can turn on the sound for the news if he or she wants to and it overrides the driver's control.
But, the speakers are on the back of the suicide seat so they point away from the driver, meaning that the sound is fairly low when it is on. Furthermore:
  • The system resets with each new fare so the sound should not remain on after a customer leaves.
  • From talking to customers who have used the terminals in NYC, the first thing most of them do is turn off the sound if it is on anyway.
  • So very few customers are likely to turn the sound on at all.
Conclusion: the sound at worst should be a minor annoyance.

What about the 5%? Will the tipping prompts really give the drivers more money?

The terminals have prompts that encourage the customers to tip well. If the fare is low (under $10?), they are prompted to tip $2, $3 or Other (photo).

On longer rides, the customers are prompted to hit 20% or Other. In addition, the 20% is calculated to include any extras such as airport or bridge tolls.

Hansu Kim says that studies have shown that customers tip up to 30% higher than they would without the prompts.

I don't know if I quite buy this. After all they are studying a novelty. Once the newness wears off, the tipping will probably level off as well.

On the other hand, the natural thing to do with these screens is to hit the $2 or the 20% buttons.

There is also the fact that (at VeriFone anyway) the customers do not have to sign the receipt for under $25. In fact, according to Mr. Kim the minimum for a signature is now going up to $50. This makes taking a credit card almost as fast as cash. The customers like this and, if the customers are happy, they tend to tip more.

In short, tt's hard for me to see how the tipping on these terminal would not more than the cover 5% drivers are to be charged for cashing the receipts - even in a worst case scenario.

For drivers at Town Taxi and Checker, even covering the 5% would be a huge improvement by itself. And, who knows? The drivers (other than Green's) at Citywide Dispatch might even start accepting credit card calls.

Why should the drivers be charged at all?
  1. As I've mentioned, many of them are already being overcharged now.
  2. The use of credit cards is expanding rapidly with huge costs to the companies. These PIMS will allow them to recover their costs.
  3. The drivers should make more money.
  4. The public should be better served.
The Merchant Accounts

There have been some complaints from drivers about these accounts - mostly due to the delay in being able to use the funds.

The normal hold on the money is 24 hours to 48 hours. On three day weekends, this can mean up to 4 days without the drivers being able to touch their money.

However, Hansu Kim says, that with a month or two, VeriFone will start "instantaneously crediting the driver's accounts," meaning that there will no longer be any hold on the funds..

It should also be kept in mind that these accounts have been set up so that the taxi companies can't touch the money and thus the unscrupulous companies amongst them will be unable to misappropriate the funds.

Advertising Revenue

As previously reported, 90% of the revenue will go the vendors and 10% will go to the drivers. The companies will NOT get a share.

On top of this, it will probably take three years before anybody makes a profit off the revenue. VeriFone estimates that it will take that long for the advertising money to cover the installation costs.

One More Thing

Contrary to rumor (spread partially by me) Hansu Kim says that he does not own shares in VeriFone. He says he is a paid consultant for the company and will neither receive a commission nor in any way make a personal profit from the sale of the units.

Kim also says that VeriFone will not hold a monopoly on the systems. CMT (being used by Luxor) and Wireless Edge will also be involved.