Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Franz Kafka on the Waiting List

This comes to me from Carl Macmurdo who said that this passage reminds him of the plight of drivers on the waiting list.

(To read the passage click below.)

MTA Permits Town Hall meeting

A Town Hall meeting was held last Week on Monday concerning the new permits leased by the MTA to the companies. It was led by Taxi Services personal Mike Harris (photo), Jarvis Murray and Scott Leon.

I'm going to China tomorrow and I'm pressed for time so I'm just going pass on some notes.

TAC member Carl Macmurdo said the MTA gave themselves medallions. 

Former TAC member Bill Mounsey (82 on the List) and driver Naim Malik strongly objected to giving out the permits instead of giving medallions to working drivers on the list.

Mike Harris said that he had talked to Director Reiskin and that the List had not been killed, implying that more cabs would go to the List. According to Harris, the permits are different than medallions in several ways.

The permits: are leased for a three year period, are restricted to gates & gas, can drop at SFO but can't pick up, cannot be leased and will have different numbers.

People at the meeting said that the way to guarantee that the cabs will be used properly would be to: look at actual figures - who buys the cab, who pays the insurance, who gets the gate payments, who pays the gates and where the shift changes are made - must be made at the company.

Tom Stanghellini of Luxor cab said that it would give the companies the chance to reward veteran drivers with good shifts. 

Allocation of the permits to the companies ...

will be on the basis of dispatching records and other factors. such as treatment of drivers would be used to decide how many cabs would be given to what companies. The discussion centered on dispatching records on Monday.

Harris emphasized that it was a preliminary draft and that the numbers could be changed.

At this point the 155 would be put out thus:

  • 50 to Luxor
  • 45 to Yellow
  • 35 to Desoto
  • 10 to Arrow/Checker
  • 5 to Comfort, Green, National
  • 0 to everyone else
Hansu Kim, owner of Desoto Cab strenuously objected to the fact that the statistics were self-reported. He said that there was no way Luxor should get 15 more cabs than Desoto. He said that Desoto was being audited by the City's controller and all other companies should do the same.

Jarvis Murray said that they would stay with self-reporting until electronic waybills because the norm.

Stanghellini said that Luxor had no objection to being audited.

A point of amusement is that Yellow Cab appears to have cost themselves 20 or 30 permits by deliberately giving poor service on the theory that this would give them more cabs

Richard Hybels was upset about getting none. "All my cabs are gates and gas and there's no tipping ," he said. "Some of these companies don't even have workers comp." In addition he said that the figures were wrong. He was listed as having 29 medallions when he only had 23.

Mark Gruberg of Green said that the pick ups that Green drivers make on Cabuolus weren't recorded in the stats and should be. Hybels could make the same complaint about Metro, which also uses Cabulous..

Hansu Kim said that the $1,900 per month that the MTA will charge to lease the permits was closer to a realist figure than the $2,500 that Med. Holders are getting now. Kim thinks that the numbers have artificial been driven up by brokers and illegal subleasing.

I suggested that the MTA should poll the drivers anonymously to find out which companies engaging in illegal practices like tipping.

This was met by great enthusiasm by ordinary drivers and total silence by company owners and stockholders.

Tom Stanghellini turned toward me and said something to the effect that nobody could find any tipping money in their office. He used different words but his meaning was, if people are tipping where is the money?

I mean he was looking at me when he said that as if to disprove that I ever put  the $20,000 that I put through Luxor's "Tipping Window" just like every other good Luxor smuc driver who wanted a decent shift and was stupid enough to stick around for ten years.

Well - you have me there Tom. I don't have a clue. On the other hand, a strip search by a good proctologist would probably turn something up resembling the truth. 

Monday, September 10, 2012

Malcolm on Top

Might as well start with Jim Gillespie (photo, below). He walked up to me with a big smile as I headed across the square toward the MTA board meeting last Tuesday.

"Going to write something in your blog?" he asked with a smile.

"I just found out that Heinicke (photo left) appears to be be violating the Sunshine Ordinance. The meetings are a farce," I told Gillespie. "The proposals are decided in advance behind close doors."

"I thought that's the way it worked," Jim said.

If anybody would know about such things it would be Gillespie. He was seen making one of those back door visits with his pal John Lazar and the way he jauntily bounded up the steps to City Hall told me how the vote would go.

MTA Board did indeed choose to lease 150 to 200 medallions or permits to taxi companies. The permits are supposed to go to the best run companies but "word on the street" is that Yellow will get more than its share anyway.

Jim used the incompetence of his company during the meeting as a reason for the City to give him more cabs. He especially mentioned that a high percentage of the people who call Yellow hang up before the dispatcher answers or cancel before Yellow picks them up.              

What he didn't bother to tell the Board was that Yellow often deliberately fails to answer the phone and then holds the orders for 9 to 12 minutes before dispatching them.  That way the company can use their poor service to ask for more taxis. And, the City is going to do it. Another doublethink classic.

The board will lease the taxis to the companies despite the fact that a study being done by Hara and Associates will not be finished until January.

This caused some discussion and the only dissenting vote. Chairman of the Board, Tom Nolan (photo left) thought that they should wait until the study was completed. He also wanted to revisit the decision if Hara came to the conclusion that no cabs were necessary. But, as one driver said, that's like closing the barn door after the horses are out.

There was an extended discussion by the Board members but it was one of those experiences where reality trumps satire.

Not that there is necessarily anything wrong with ignorance. But, it does take humility to learn and the Board has adamantly refused to listen to anybody - the Taxi Advisory Council, the drivers at the Town Hall meetings, the drivers at the MTA Board meetings, Director of Taxi Services Chris Hayashi, Dan Hara - who could teach them what's what.

The tone was actually set a few Board meetings ago when Director Joel Ramos (photo right) fervently thanked Director Malcolm Heinicke for helping them understand the taxi business. I have nothing to add. This is the level at which the Board functions.

Ramos thought the fact that Uber, Sidecar and other illegal Apps started in San Francisco was a priori proof that there must be a shortage of cabs. It couldn't have anything to do with the fact that this city is one of the Tech start up capitals of the world and that the businesses are being set up in such a way that it's almost impossible for them to lose money. Not to mention that these Apps are invading cities like Washington D.C. and Chicago that are flooded with taxis.

"Word on the street" has it that Director of Transportation Ed Reiskin (along with the Mayor's office) is responsible for raising the payout to medallion holders back up to $200 thousand from the $150 thousand that Heinicke wanted them to suck on. Although Reiskin is clearly being pressured from above to "show them the money," he appears to be struggling to do as best he can by the drivers and the cab riding public.

The problem is that he clearly does not understand the most basic things about the cab business. Nor does he know the characters in it.

And, why should he? He has the entire MTA under his purview. How could he know the nuts and bolts of every division? Especially one as complex as taxicabs? That's what the Director of Taxi Services is supposed to be for. But, of course, the Board has her on the top of their list of people not to listen to. (Hmm. I've just ended two perfectly good sentences in a row with prepositions. Take that Sister Pauline!)

Director Reiskin thought it was refreshing to hear from people outside the cab industry during public comment - after the usual collection of professional shills (most of them paid by Luxor or Yellow) came up calling for as many 700 more cabs. My favorites were the hotel rep and the woman from the Chamber of Commerce. They always want more cabs no matter what the situation. They wanted more after 9/11.

The hotel guy said that they couldn't find cabs at the hotels. Of course not. With all the limos lined up to grease the doorman, where would a cab park? The Commerce lady, as always, cited the expanding population of San Francisco as a reason to put out the taxis.

 She's right of course. In 1950, the population of San Francisco was 775,357. By 2010, it was 805,235. At that rate, one additional medallion a year should do the trick.

When another speaker and myself told Reiskin that, even if they started the process tomorrow, the additional cabs still wouldn't be ready for the Blue Angels, he was disconcerted. He thought about it for few moments and decided that "we have to get them out as soon as possible." He seemed to be unaware of the fact that, if the taxis were needed at all, it wouldn't be until May. Yes - there are no tourists between October and the summer.

The ideal time to add taxis would be in April. That way they wouldn't lower the incomes of current drivers and they'd be ready for the boat races next summer. There was no need to rush. Reiskin had plenty of time to read Hara's study and still add cabs if needed. Anyone in the taxi business could have told him so - if he'd been willing to listen.

On the other hand, someone else is clearly pushing Reiskin's buttons. (See the title of this post.) The only real reason to put the permits out fast is to funnel funds into the income streams of a few cab companies and the SFMTA.

One thing the Board members did right ...

was finally come out in favor of an Uber like App for taxicabs. Finally?

I wrote my first post on Cabulous and Open Taxi Access(OTA)  on January 28, 2011. The idea has been presented to the MTA Board on numerous occasions. The Taxi Advisory Council voted in favor of it. Cab drivers almost universally support it. Chairman Tom Nolan even said that the Board should look into the idea.

Cabulous started at approximately the same time as Uber in 2010. If OTA had been supported by the Board when it first came to their attention, everyone might be talking about how Uber is like Cabulous and not the other way around.

About the only people against it were the managers of Yellow and Luxor Cabs.

So what happened?

"Word on the street (dude sees all, hears all, knows all)" is that OTA died when President and General Manager of Luxor cab, John Lazar (photo), told former Executive MTA Director Nat Ford to kill it.

On the other hand, funds have recently been allocated to Taxi Services for electronic dispatch (The new name for OTA). Hopefully the Board will follow through this time.

Why $1,900 a month?

Of course this figure was not vetted (What is these days?) but the going price for medallions leased to taxi companies is currently $2,500. Yet here is the SFMTA selling permits on the cheap. To say the least, this runs contrary to their normal behavior. It also gives credence to the "word on the street" that John Lazar and Jim Gillespie worked out a back door deal after threatening to sue the SFMTA. At $1,900 a month Yellow and Luxor will make out like bandits - which isn't too far from their normal behavior.

Yellow takes in between $8,000 to $12,000 per day by encouraging its drivers to "voluntarily" tip. And, of course, John Lazar was asking for $10 per day plus $2 for the gasman at Luxor when I was there three years ago. At that time, he was also asking his cashiers to "voluntarily" tip him.  This meant that John's cashiers had to make $100 per shift in tips from drivers through Luxor's dispatching window (photo below) before they could make anything for themselves. This gives the word "voluntary" a whole new meaning.

What we have here, then, is the SFMTA getting together with two of the most dubious taxi companies in the business to divvy up money that had been headed to ease the old age of working cab drivers. This would appear to leave Director Malcolm Heinicke with a profound moral quandary:

Should the MTA take 15%, 33% or 50% from the companies' tipping jars? For the public good - as is, of course, understood.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Dostoyevsky, Orwell, the Sunshine Ordinance & the Politics of Taxis

A character in one of Fyodor Dostoyevsky's stories loved humanity but couldn't stand any individual person. The great Russian writer used this figure to satirically underline the potential distance between a noble ideal and an actual human being.

George Orwell (photo) looked into the corrupting effects that such thinking can have on action in his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language.

He thought that the writing of his time had become sloppy and decadent and that "the decline of language must ultimately have political and economic ..." effects. "In our time," Orwell wrote, "political speech and writing are largely in defense of the indefensible."

"Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties." People defending such acts can't say, "'I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so’" and instead cloak their true thoughts with euphemisms.

Bombing helpless people from the air is named "pacification." Robbing millions of peasants of their lands becomes "relocation." In Orwell's time, imprisoning and torturing people, shooting them in the back of the head was called the "elimination of unreliable elements." 

What I'm about to do is examine recent statements of the SFMTA Board using Orwell's scope. Justifying the extraction of "income streams" from taxi drivers may seem minor in comparison to the above but major corruption starts small. Hitler began by beating people up in beer halls. More to the point, cab drivers were one of the first groups to lose benefits and workers rights by being forced to sign "independent contracts." Millions of other workers have since suffered the same fate.

The simple fact is that a government agency has targeted workers in a private industry as a source of revenue and justifies its actions with the following double talk.

"The medallions are our assets and we can do what we want with them."

Director of the MTA Board Malcolm Heinicke makes this sound like an eternal principle of law or nature but in fact the statement is what Orwell would have called "doublethink."

1. The medallions became "assets" because of laws that the MTA wrote.
2. These "assets" only have value because of the cab drivers who work the medallions.
3. The idea that you can do what you want with an "asset" without regard to the effect that it would have on the people who give it value runs contrary to the moral principles that have characterized western civilization for the last one hundred and fifty years.
4. Only extremists of the left or right would agree with Heinicke's political stance on this matter (i.e. communists, fascists, dictators, tea party fanatics, etc).

"We're doing this for the public good."

Right! A "public" that does not include cab drivers or, indeed, the public that uses cabs.

What the MTA really plans to do is take millions of dollars that cab drivers have earned and use it to cover a budget shortfall. But it goes beyond that - these proposals will stay in effect whether there is a shortfall or not.

And, the percentages that the MTA intends to take from drivers in the form of "transfer fees" are three to ten times higher than 5% that is charged by New York and most other cities in the country.

In effect, the MTA intends to tax San Francisco cab drivers at a higher rate than any other group of the people in the country. Heinicke, I suppose, would call this collateral damage.

The only "public" being served by MTA's plans are the wealthy individuals and corporations that the city (and the country) are under-taxing or not taxing at all; as wall as, of course, Heinicke and his personal ambitions.

Is it Alice in Wonderland or the White Rabbit?

I don't know how else to characterize the following fantasies.

Medallion sales revenue will go to improve illegal vehicle enforcement.

The Heinicke plan projects $14 going to the MTA.  The Pilot Plan gave the city $10 million a year. Taxi Services got permission from the MTA to hire two new investigators over a two year period. Only one works regularly in the field. The other works enforcing regulations in the taxi industry. Meanwhile unregulated "car services" Sidecar, Uber and the new pink mustache cars proliferate like rabbits while the MTA does nothing.

The cost of medallion enforcement over the last two yeas has come solely from a 100% increase in medallion holder renewal fees. Of the $20 million that the MTA has taken in from the Pilot Plan in medallion sales revenue, the taxi industry has yet to see one red cent.

We intend to improve taxi service.


What better way to improve service than to turn cab driving into a dead end job that will pay even less in the future than it does now?

What better way to improve service than to ignore the reports, proposals and plans of the TAC and other driver/experts in the industry?

What better way than to show callous disregard toward several hundred professional taxi drivers (who worked and followed the City's own rules) by killing the waiting list?

What better way to attract new quality drivers than to ignore the ideas, needs and wishes of the ones who are already here?

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity," George Orwell.

And, I might add - insincerity is the great enemy of pure action as well.

Vice Chair Cheryl Brinkman initiated the vote on Heinicke's Plan at the last Board meeting by saying,

"we've heard enough,"

when she couldn't possibly have read so much as a word of the Taxi Advisory Council report.

In a strange way, of course, she was right. There was no point in listening to anything cab drivers might say or think. Brinkman and the rest of the Board members clearly had already voted before they walked into the meeting room.

Or, as Director Malcolm Heinicke wrote in a May 17, 2012 e-mail that went to Roberta Boomer, Tom Nolan and Cheryl Brinkman with a Cc to Ed Reiskin:

"... most of all we all need to come to agreement on this (the MTA's plan) as best we can BEFORE IT IS FORMALLY PROPOSED." (my capitalization)

"If that means we need to move this piece of the overall package to a latter meeting, so be it, but we need to get our agreed plan and then sell the Mayor and the Supes."

Earlier in the same e-mail Heinicke showed sincere feeling when wrote,

"... Chris is significantly limiting the revenue to the MTA and sending more to the amorphous Drivers's fund. I understand why she is doing this but it is not good policy in my view. The MTA should get revenue. And, if we do not push for that, we are sacrificing the needs of the City to placate a few cab drivers."