Friday, March 30, 2012

Report on the Taxi Advisory Council: Part 1

Before reporting on the TAC's report, I thought it might be enlightening to look at the TAC itself. After all, votes aren't made in a vacuum. There are politics involved in everything.

The council started as a directive  from former Executive Director of the MTA Nat Ford, the format was worked out by Deputy Director of Taxi Services Chris Hayashi and the councilors were chosen by Ford from a list of people who applied.


The council was set up to represent as many of the viewpoints as possible. It has fifteen members which originally included:
  • Three representatives from the largest three companies: Yellow, Luxor and DeSoto - Bill Gillespie, John Lazar & Jane Bolig respectively.
  • Three representatives from smaller companies = Chris Sweis of Royal Cab, Dan Hinds of National Cab & Athan Rebelos of Green Cab.
  • Three medallion holders not employed by a company - Barry Korengold of the SFCA, Carl Macmurdo of the MHA and Lori Graham.
  • Three drivers on the waiting list - John Han, Bill Mounsey & Dmitry Navarov.
  • Three drivers not on the waiting list - Timothy Ajaegbu, David Khan & Bill Minikel.

The council was also originally supposed to include Mark Gruberg as a representative from both the UTW and Green Cab but he declined because he thought the UTW should have its own rep.

In any case, the aim of the set up was to achieve a balance amonst the various forces in the industry.


Once the meetings started it quickly became obvious that this was not the case. The early votes ran 11-4 or 10-5 in favor of the owner's positions. What had happened?

Well ... a few people were clearly not representing the groups that they had been chosen to stand for, most spectacularly Lori Graham, Timothy Ajaegbu and Dmitry Nazarov.

Ajaegbu's problem was attendance, which was most dramatically illustrated on the occasion when he arrived in the middle of a roll call vote on a meter increase and sprinted into his seat as though he was sliding into third base just seconds before the vote closed. He clearly had no idea what the issue was. Three or four people told him to vote "yes" so he did.

Graham, chosen as a "medallion holder not employed by a company," had obviously failed to tell her interviewers (what she would later write on sftaxi's mail list) that she didn't believe that cab drivers knew enough about the taxi business to criticize the companies and voted with her boss, Yellow's Jim Gillespie, every time.

Nazarov (on left in photo) did her one better. Supposedly representing "drivers on the waiting list," he not only always voted with his lease holder, Luxor's John Lazar, but he also expressed Lazar's positions whenever he spoke.  Once Lazar reached around and gave Nazarov a neck squeeze, leading to a running joke on the council that Lazar kept his hand on the back of Nazarov's neck in order to make his head go up and down or back and forth as needed.

Two TAC's Not One.

Then, several council positions changed hands. Nazarov bought a medallion and Graham was replaced for lack of engagement during the meetings - though I thought this was unfair because she followed Gillespie on the voting roll call and didn't need to pay much attention to know when (or when not) to raise her hand. Tone Lee replaced Nazarov.  Ruach Graffis  of the UTW replaced Ajaegbu. Tara Houseman replaced Graham and, because of the change of management at DeSoto, Athan Rebelos switched seats to represent DeSoto instead of Green, and Richard Hybels of Metro Cab stepped in to represent smaller companies.  These changes fundamentally altered the character of the council.

In short, there have actually been two Taxi Advisory Councils. The original, which represented the owners, and the current version, which comes closer to representing all parties in the business including last year's horn honking "strikers." These differences had an effect on the voting - on occasion, dramatically so.

Monday, March 26, 2012

What are we to do?

To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 'tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Supervisors,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of companies,
And by opposing end them: to die, to sleep
No more; and by a sleep, to say we end
The heart-ache, and the thousand Natural shocks
That Flesh is heir to at the hands of the MTA?

Indeed, the MTA's vacillations have made Hamlets of us all.

A permanent plan for the taxicab industry was supposed to already be in place ... was it six months ago? Then, the goal was changed to the first of the year. And, changed again to March 6h and, then, pushed back again 'till May.

The Taxi Advisory Council has been meeting since August of 2010 and has made over twenty recommendations. I believe that four of them have actually gone into effect: the meter increase, the Single Operator Permits, the 37 new medallions and the reduction of the selling age to 65. TAC has more or less come up with a permanent plan that might actually be looked at in May - though it was basically talked to death by last November.

And, at the same time as so little was being done about taxis by the MTA Board, an expensive study was commissioned, completed, written up and ignored. And, while this was going on, the Board expressed interest in Open Taxi Access only to let the idea die a lonely death in the cold and drafty hallways of 1 Dr. Carlton B. Goodlett Place.

In the meantime, we're left dangling like puppets, uncertain of the consequences of our actions or non-actions. Lacking the information to even make informed guesses about our future.

Take me, for instance. I'm supposed to be one of the winners of this scenario. I hold a Post-K medallion and, being over sixty-five, have a chance to sell it. But, should I? That depends. I'm healthy and could use more money in the bank. I probably could drive for a few more years and then sell the medallion. But, will that choice still be on the table next year? It should be ... but will it? Instead will the Board:
  • Decide to flood the city with taxis, making my medallion and all others worthless.
  • Decide that Director Malcom Heinicke really does know the business, take all the medallions and lease them out so that we cab drivers can pay off the huge debt that was created for the city by the under-taxed rich.
But my situation is minor. There are medallion holders who are ill and have heavy expenses for whom the decision is critical.

And, what of the drivers on The List? They don't know if The List will continue to exist or, if it does, how deep it will go. There is talk of cutting the numbers off at 1,100. And, there is also talk of cleaning it up. Drivers around this number don't know if they are likely to get an "earned" medallion, if they should buy one while they have the chance, or if they should simply punt and go into another line of work.

The companies have trouble making business plans because they don't know what the future will look like and the drivers remain shackled to a corrupt system where new technologies and new scams take ever more chunks out of their incomes with every passing day.

This is a complex industry but decisions have to be made and made soon. Yet, they can't be made haphazardly. The Board has to learn and understand the issues. It'll take wisdom. For guidance the Board could do worse than take the advice of old Will Shakespeare.

"Neither a borrower nor an extorter be;
For a shakedown oft loses both itself and friend,(80)
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man"... or woman.
"Farewell. My blessing season this in thee!"

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Small Turnout for MTA Protest

Yesterday saw the smallest taxi protest since the MTA took over taxicabs almost four years ago. This photo shows seven cabs which made up the longest honking line during the period while I was there. This was a far and distant cry from the May 4, 2011 honk-a-thon.

Maybe drivers are protested out? Or, maybe they think that protests are of limited value? Or, maybe the issues aren't fully embraced by many drivers?

While almost all drivers are probably against the idea of letting the MTA lease medallions to companies, the question of favoring Affiliate or Long Term Leasing is much more divisive. Many veteran drivers have lost their shifts because of these leases and many of the vehicles are used for illegal subleasing. Many people think that LTL's have caused a loss of professionalism and service in the industry. It's also by no means clear whether or not the non-medallion holders working under the leases are happy with their circumstances.

In any case, like a homing pigeon reaching home, Tariq Mehmood found his way to the front of a camera.

One protester displayed a sign of an unusually high literary level.

Medallion Reform: For Discussion Only?

Deputy Director Christiane Hayashi (seen here next to David Khan with Mike Harris sitting behind them at a TAC meeting) has come up with her own plan for medallion reform which she presented at the Taxi  Advisory Council and a Town Hall Meeting in February. If adopted this plan would replace the Pilot Program when it runs out of salable medallions.

Ms Hayashi emphasized that her plan was not chiseled in stone and was for discussion only. 

I take this to mean that she thinks of her plan as a draft that is likely to be changed and modified during future meetings and discussions.

In any case, a great deal of original thought and work clearly has gone into her plan and it deserves a long look by all those who care about the future of cab driving in this city. I intend to do exactly that during the next few weeks or so. 

We Don't Need No Stinking Discussions!

Others of course have already made up their minds. This includes the usual suspects like Tariq Mehmood who thinks that a honking horn is better than a clear idea and prefers personal insults to in-depth analysis. Mr. Mehmood led a protest at the MTA Board meeting yesterday - which is fine. But, he's also repeating his snarky attacks on Hayashi - which is not. 

Since he's at it again, I feel it's my duty to remind my gentle readers that Tariq's animosity toward Hayashi stems not from noble ideas but from his sense that she's interfered with his attempts to manipulate taxi reform for his own personal gain. (See Tariq: Or, "It's True If I Say It's True." and Tariq - Or Actions Speak Louder Than Words. )

Some Thoughts are Verboten.

There is another driver who recently wrote to the MTA Board that it should fire Deputy Director Hayashi merely for suggesting that the MTA lease out some medallions to the companies. The driver especially dislikes the idea that the MTA would be making money off these leases. Leaving aside the issue (which I'll deal with later) for the moment, I want to point out both the absurdity of his demand and the ignorance that motivates it.

I happend to like this person (which may be why I'm not using his name) but he's a dilettante when it comes to San Francisco taxicab politics. He often shows up to make stirring speeches but hasn't put in the time necessary to know what has gone on in this business for the last three years. 

His demand is analogous to insisting that a crime syndicate fire one of its employees for loan sharking. 

It's the MTA that wants the wants the money, fella. Hayashi's just doin' her job. 

One of the first things the Deputy Director said during one of the first Town Hall Meetings in 2009 was that, if she didn't get a certain amount of money for the city, she'd be replaced. She's went on to add that she also wanted to help create the best taxi business she possibly could for both the drivers and the public - a desire that she's fulfilled to an amazing degree. 

The Plan that Might Have been and Still Could Be.

On September 1, 2009 Chris Hayashi was demoted from Director to Deputy Director for not enthusiastically embracing a plan drawn up by MTA Director Malcom Heinicke. The same Heinicke who has received a letter from my pal to fire Hayashi because she wants too much money from the taxi industry. Talk about biting the wrong end of the stick.

That Heinicke's plan was not adopted was largely due to the later efforts, determination, creativity and negotiating ability of Hayashi. 

Without her, there would be:

  • No list.
  • No driver's fund.
  • No medallions sold.
  • No medallions bought.
  • No medallions period.
Drivers would be treated far worse than they are now with no hope of ever improving their lot. Service would rapidly decline as a result.

Hayashi deserves awards not attacks.

Heinicke is still pushing his plan.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Cab Driving in China 2012: Part 2

As you can see from the photo, cab driving in Guangzhou China is dangerous.  As to how dangerous is hard to verify. All I came across on the internet was a scholarly work on motorcycle taxi robberies and the best answer to a strange question.

The only people who have guns in China are the military so the shields are designed only to stop assaults or knife attacks and the plexiglas is not continuous.

In any case, it's hard to get statistics on the subject. The best general reference to violence against cab drivers that I've come across remains Charles Rathbone's Taxi Library and he doesn't know much about China either.

The Chinese drivers I've talked with hadn't been robbed and most work under various kinds of leasing arrangements. The quality of their lives appears to be similar to that of non-medallion holding drivers in San Francisco. In other words, they can eat out but not at starred restaurants.

Cameras in Taxis

While I was in mainland China I kept thinking that Barry Korengold, who is leading the fight for privacy rights in cabs, would enjoy driving there. Than I got to Hong Kong. And, there it was - the eye in the taxi. My Cantonese translator was sleeping so I was unable to find out whether or not the machines recorded audio.

Then again - cabs might be only place in China where the conversations of travelers are not recorded.

It appears that, instead of China becoming more democratic, the US government is becoming more like China's.

Maybe Barry is right. Maybe the inside of a taxi is the last bastion of freedom.

Transit Cards

Cabs in China do not take credit cards. In fact, many places in China don't take credit cards because some Chinese are very good at forging them. Bank or ATM cards are much more widely accepted.

Taxis in Guangzhou accept transit cards which are also used for buses and the subway. Cab drivers pay no fees for their use.

Is such a thing possible here?