Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Trolling for TNCs

My title is a misnomer. TNCs aren't hard to find. The night I rode with Investigators Eric Richholt and his new partner Andres Martinez, Lyft & Sidecars were blocking traffic all over town.

Contrary to popular opinion Taxi Services has been ticketing TNCs for violations as well as citing illegal taxis and limos whenever possible.

Investigators go out in pairs regularly six days a week.

Eric says that they write about 30 tickets a shift. However, most of the tickets during the day are given to limos while Eric & Andres do most of the citing of the TNCs at night. Most of the violations are for illegal parking or blocking traffic and run about $100. The penalty for making an illegal pick up is $5,000 but, because of smart phone apps, it is almost impossible write up a TNC or a limo for an illegal pick up.

Eric & Andres went out one night with Director Chris Hayashi as a decoy. She was wearing a party dress and high heels but couldn't get a Lyft or Sidecar to bite. The few TNCs that stopped when she flagged them insisted that she download their app if she wanted a ride.

Hunting for Illegal Taxis

Eric & Andres usually begin their shift by looking for illegal taxi and limos just like they did a few years ago when I originally rode with Taxi Services investigators.

We started in the Mission. It took all of five minutes of cruising before Eric & Andres spotted Sierra Yellow Cab Number 50 on 26th and South Van Ness. A few weeks earlier they'd spotted the same illegal taxi picking up flags at 3rd and Howard. The driver simultaneously saw the investigators and took off using high speed evasive action. The investigators chased after him but gave up on the freeway because Number 50 was making dangerous lane changes at 85 mph and they were afraid that he'd get somebody hurt or killed.

They received two other complaints from San Francisco cab drivers about Number 50 so Eric called the owner of Sierra Yellow Cab who said that he'd shut the driver down but, as we saw, this hadn't happened. Number 50 spotted us about the same time we spotted him and took off. He circled blocks, cut back and eventually lost us with a variety of lane changes on Mission near 17th.

A little later, Andres & Eric spotted another regular violator's illegal cab illegally parked on Ivy Street between Polk and Van Ness. Clearly a professional at illegal taxi driving, the dude had parked his car so that it couldn't be towed. This didn't stop Eric from giving it a ticket. He ticketed it again the next day.

Giving out tickets is one thing and collecting the money is something else again. Salim Soltaine, who Eric ticketed for $5,000 back in 2011 when I was riding along, was hit with $5,000 fines on three other occasions but left the country without paying anything. Nonetheless, Eric says that they've given out forty-five $5,000 citations which the court usually reduces to $500 for a first offense. Eric estimates that they've taken in between $7,000 and $10,000 in fines.

Congesting Traffic

TNCs don't usually start congesting major streets until 9 or 10 p.m. Eric (photo right) and Andres (photo left) thus usually takes a break around 8:30 p.m. at Miller's East Coast Deli on Polk St. Miller's claims to have the best sandwiches in town, which may or may not be true, but they certainly have the biggest that I've seen. I had two meals off the one I bought.

You, gentle reader, may notice that Eric does all the talking. That's because Andres wanted to leave all the speaking to Eric. A nice, quiet and friendly man, perhaps this is because Andres comes from a culture where people are taught to respect their elders.

In any case, fortified by the meal, Eric & Andres were ready to take on the TNCs, which complied by blocking streets, double parking and hanging out in bus stops.

We drove less than a block before handing out the first ticket to a double-parking Sidecar. There was no shortage drivers to cite. Despite babysitting me for half their shift Eric & Andres still handed out 28 tickets.

Eric says that TNCs and Black Cars have raised "havoc on traffic" in San Francisco. It's gotten to the point where limo drivers complain to him about the TNCs when he's citing them. ("Why don't you ticket those guys?)

Eric & Andres have been reaching out to the police who have agreed to step up enforcement to help unblock the streets.

Lyft? I ain't no stinking Lyft!

Lyft of course is the most obvious of the TNCs. Sidecars are supposed to have sleeves with S-i-d-e-c-a-r written on them over the back of their mirrors but very few of them actually do and, as far as I know, Uber xs have no identifying insignias what-so-ever.

Lyft drivers don't appear to like this situation and have taken to putting their mustaches inside the front windshield of their vehicles.

In this way, they can pretend that they are not working as commercial vehicles if they're in an accident or are stopped by the police for a violation. Or, even if they are being photographed by blogger like the dude in the right photo. The instant he saw me lining up a shot, he threw his mustache down on the front seat and floored it.

Local feature writers may be confused about insurance but Lyft drivers are not. They know that they're not insured.

Eric thinks that the insurance issue along with the hidden costs of driving and maintaining their own vehicles will kill off the TNCs in the long run.

He gave an example of neighbor of his in Oakland, a young woman, who was excited when she started driving for Sidecar. He talked to her a few months later and she said that she'd quit driving for the company because she wasn't making any money.

There are hidden costs to using your own car as a taxicab. There is the lack of collision insurance which could put the drivers back as much as $25,000 or $30,000 if they bought a new car to use as TNC. And, there is also a lack of Worker's Compensation insurance (considered a minor point by local media types) that could leave a severely injured driver destitute.

Even if the driver manages to cover damage to the vehicle, some cars are never the same after an accident. The cab I drove when I was a medallion holder, was hit when I wasn't driving it. It was supposedly fixed but there was a problem with electrical system and the car kept dying. This happened several times and the insurance company was reticent to pay the bills which rose to over $2,000. This wasn't a problem for me because the cab company owned the cab but an individual using his or her own car to transport customers probably would not be so lucky.

In addition, there are the normal maintenance costs that get higher and higher the the longer the cars are driven. Sooner or later Lyft and Sidecar drivers will realize that they are are talking all the risks (physical and financial) normally assumed by taxi or limo companies for little better than a minimum wage job.

Personally I do think that the insurance issue will kill off the TNCs but in different way than in Eric's scenario. When insurance rates start going up because of all the hidden mustaches and fake, felonious statements from deceitful TNC drivers, the public will demand that Lyft and Sidecar start paying their own bills instead of passing them on to us.

In the meantime, Eric & Andres are doing their best to clear the riffraff off the streets.


Sunday, December 8, 2013

Murai, Rest in Peace

I'm sorry to inform my readers that Murai died yesterday. I don't know if I have much to say that I haven't said before. She lived as full a life as anyone I've ever met. She was a wonderful spirit who lived as thoroughly as she could every day. She never stopped learning. She never stopped studying. She never stopped loving. She never stopped sharing. She never stopped creating her daily art until the very end.

She remains a great inspiration to me personally and I'm glad that I was able to write my post about her before she did pass on. She liked the piece a lot and was excited about doing a video project with me that I'll have to finish without her.

I'll be forwarding a post written by her children as her last words after I send out this article.

I have one more picture. Who but Murai would dress like this to deliver a speech to the SFMTA Board?

Good luck on your new journey Murai. Vaya con Dios.