Saturday, April 21, 2012

The Phantom Does a Back-seat Terminal

Thursday night I finally had a chance to drive a cab with a rear-seat terminal thanks to Athan Rebelos, the manager at Desoto Cab.

Since many, if not most drivers, have already used PIM's , I'm simply going to give my own impressions.

The format I'll use will be to start with a complaint against the PIM's and then give my answers based on my limited experience on one shift.

The back-seat TV's will ruin rapport with the customers.

Absolutely untrue. A few people didn't want to talk but I had the same good time that I unusually have with the rest of my customers. The fact that there were video ads on the screen didn't seem to effect the conversations at all. Then again, the sound was (mostly) turned off.

Of course, I don't know what effect that those huge units used by Luxor would have on such interactions.

The customers won't like it.

Once again - not true. They either liked (or were indifferent to) it. The default for audio on this terminal is (supposed to be) off and light is dim.

Customers with credit cards enthusiastically liked using it.

It will take longer to process the credit card transactions.

Yet again - not true. In fact, for experienced users, the PIM's were much faster than cash. There were two people (including one drunk) who initially had trouble using the swipe but I was able to easily talk them through the process. In any case, you can still use the front terminal if you have a total lush in back.

The eternal question; will people tip more on the back-seat terminals?

Drawing a conclusion by comparing a few days of transactions is risky to say the least. But ... six of the 8 people using the rear PIM tipped 20%, one tipped a dollar on an $18.90 ride and one gave me an extra $6.00 for a $6.80 trip. The total on the tips equaled about 26% on $138 gross.

By comparison, I drove Friday night at Green Cab using a front seat swipe. On a $164 gross, my tips equalled slightly less than 20%. Then, Saturday night, I had about 24% on an $82 gross. But this didn't include no-tip on a $47 ride to Berkeley. They were college students who I didn't think would have tipped under any circumstances. On the other hand, seeing a prompt might have inspired them.

Of course, you can't make too much out of this but most customers do appear to hit the 20% button most of the time on the rear-seat terminals while the baseline on the front-seat units often dips below 15%.

So ... yeah I think you would get at least 2 or 3% percent more in tips from the rear-seat units.

What I didn't like.

The default was supposed to have the audio off but there were a few moments on a loop where talking and laughter suddenly became audible. It wasn't very loud but my right ear was less than 6 inches from the monitor and this quickly because very annoying. There was humming in that ear by the end of the shift.

Positioning the units so close to a driver's head might also be potentially dangerous. The PIM could possibly fly loose, or the drivers head might hit the monitor, during a major collision - especially with a T-bone.

In conclusion.

On the whole I really liked the rear-seat units. I especially liked the processing speed and the fact that I don't have to ask the customers whether or not they wanted to give me a gratuity. That always makes me feel like a panhandler.

But, for me to want to use a read-seat PIM on a regular basis, the audio would have to be turned completely off and the units placed differently.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The MTA's Strange Conception of Regulation.

The legal definition of "regulation" from the online Your Dictionary is:

"A rule issued by an administrative agency or a local governmental body prescribing conditions or authorizations that must be followed by the public or by public utilities; the process of controlling by restrictions or rules."

When Proposition "A" in 2007 allowed the SFMTA to take over the regulation of taxis, it gave the agency the power to make any changes and charge any fees necessary to do the job.

Countervailing this, is a city rule that states that a regulating agency should not take more money from the industry than the cost that such regulation requires.

(Feel free to send me the exact quotes from these laws, gentle readers. I'm under pressure of a deadline and don't have time to look the legislation up.)

However, the MTA has chosen to countervail this countervailing by claiming that they can charge any fees necessary in order to run transportation in the city ... or words to that effect. If that sounds like a nitpicking legal trick to you, it does to me too.

Airport shuttles, trucking companies, newspaper delivery trucks, the UPS, private buses, tour buses and other business vehicles - not to mention illegal cabs and limos - all use these same streets without having to pay special fees (beyond ordinary licenses) in order to do so. Instead, the MTA has us paying the costs for all of them.

In short, cab drivers and the cab industry are being charged (what amounts to) special taxes because we are ... well ... cab drivers. The MTA, in fact, has been floating numerous plans to charge us humongous fees from before they even took over regulation. In doing this, of course, they were merely parroting the manta of former Mayor Newsom,  "Don't tax the rich, get it from those lowlife cabbies."

Unfair? Exaggeration? Hyperbole? Possibly - but the fact remains that the City of San Francisco's administrators have repeatedly attempted to pay the bills of 800,000 people by hitting 5,000 cab drivers with extortive fees. They aren't doing this to doctors, lawyers or, God forbid, mortgage bankers. They are raising funds by taxing one of the lowest paid groups of people in the city. It amounts to a reverse graduated tax. It is prejudicial in that it aimed at us simply because we are powerless and negatively stereotyped - modern equivalent of serfs.

And, nobody on the MTA Board has so much as blinked an eyelid at the thought of turning our money into an "income stream" for the city.

What? Service?

The problem is that the MTA's greed has kept the taxi industry from doing what regulation is supposed to be about - improving service to the public.

  • Taxi Services is badly understaffed and is thus having trouble coping with the illegal limo and taxi problems.
  • The lack of funds have also allowed illegal subleasing to flourish exposing the public to unqualified drivers and dangerous vehicles. 
  • Programs like Open Taxi Access have been pushed aside for lack of funds thus depriving the public of improved service in the neighborhoods.

Time for a change.

If you've been paying attention you'll have noticed that my photo of the MTA Board is badly out of date. Four of the people in that picture are no longer with the Board. Hopefully the change in personnel will lead to a change in attitude.

Instead of "income streams for the MTA" let the new mantra be 'Fairness to the drivers and Service to the public."

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Report on the Taxi Advisory Report: Part II - Show Me the Money!

The photo shows Councilor Richard Hybels, Chair Chris Sweis and Councilor John Han working on ideas that may have shown up in the TAC report.

I've decided to comment on a few facets of the report rather than do a play by play. (You can find the complete report on Han's blog.)

But, first, it appears that least two recommendations that the TAC passed are missing from the report:

One - that MTA should go forward with a Request For Proposal (RFP) for Open Taxi Access (OTA). This would invite bidding from tech companies to build the Open Taxi Access Platform. If implemented, OTA could drastically improve taxi service to the neighborhoods.
Two - That the Taxi Services should regain its status as a Division under the MTA.

Though seemingly unrelated, I believe that both subjects are germain to the issue at hand, namely:

Who should get the money?

Most people in the Taxicab business would agree with this statement from the TAC report:

"There is consensus among all industry members that revenue generated from the industry should be reduced and that the SFMTA should re-invest these revenues in the industry."

This was reflected in various TAC votes:
  • Recommendation to reduce the SFMTA re-sale transaction fee to 5%. Adopted 13:1
  • Recommendation to restructure the transaction fee so that 10% goes to the SFMTA and 10% goes to the driver fund. Adopted 8:6
  • Recommendation that all revenues generated from the taxicab industry should be re-invested in the taxicab industry. Adopted Unanimously
  • Recommendation that the SFMTA not have a financial interest in medallion sales. Adopted 9:5
Good for TAC.! Three cheers in fact!

But, the reality is that these recommendations will probably have little effect on the MTA Board.


Because the MTA looks upon Taxi Services as a source of income. It's clearly one of the reasons that they took over the taxicab business in the first place.

Now don't get me wrong! I'm not one of those people who is shouting for freedom from the MTA, or who thinks that money was the "only reason" that the agency took us over. If that was true there would have been:
  • No Pilot Plan.
  • No medallions given to people on the list.
  • No updating of the list.
  • No Driver's Fund.
  • No attempts stop illegal cabs and limos.
  • No modernization of things like A-Card renewal, etc.
  • No dialogue between the drivers and the MTA like we've had at the Town Hall Meetings or (for all its flaws) at the TAC.
If all the MTA wanted was money they simply would have followed a plan of either former Mayor Gavin Newsom or MTA Board Director Malcolm Heinicke (Photo).

Neither of these mad scenarios have taken place ... yet. Nonetheless, the MTA has taken in over $18 million from taxi drivers, has given very little of it back and has shown little indication that it intends to change. In fact, they've added insult to injury by raising most of our licensing fees.

Next: A Strange Conception of Regulation.