Tucked behind a long chain-link fence, on a street where most of the buildings have corrugated siding, the dispatch yard for Luxor Cab company looks the same as it has for years — but for one new addition. A small sign placed near the cashier window, where drivers arrive to change shifts, bears an unexpected, friendly reminder: "Tipping is not required."
Tipping — the practice of kicking back $5 to the company each shift, in the hope of obtaining a better, cleaner vehicle — has been standard practice at San Francisco cab companies for decades, despite remonstrations from the city's Municipal Transportation Agency, which says it's not allowed. And now one of the largest companies is trying to eradicate it.
The sign is just one of several carrots that cab companies are dangling in order to make their industry more attractive. With an increasingly saturated market, and competition from sleek, unregulated car-hire start-ups like Uber and Lyft, taxi interests say they're faced with a dismal labor shortage. Enrollment in the SFMTA Drivers class has steadily decreased, and company owners say they can't fill all their available shifts. Luxor now offers a lucrative 12-hour shift in place of the standard 10.
Recently, the SFMTA came up with what it thinks is an even better salvo: a website. And not just any website — a weirdly lush recruitment vehicle that makes taxi-driving look like a college scholarship. Called SFTaxiLive, it's plumped with accessories, including music playlists for drivers, live streams of taxi town-hall meetings, and maps of public restrooms. A cityscape glitters in the background.
Christiane Hayashi, the SFMTA's Director of Taxis and Accessible Services, says she's giddy about the site's potential. She views it as a useful accessory for an industry overshadowed (if not outright vitiated) by the more glamorous, app-based start-ups. Not to mention it gives cab drivers the illusion of belonging to some kind of united front — a sense that hey, we might work for separate businesses, but we're still in this together.
"It has been a challenge to communicate up-to-date... information to 8,000 taxi driver permit holders, and [this site] will hopefully be very useful," Hayashi writes in an e-mail. Once the site goes live, she wants to refine the industry's elevator pitch, telling potential drivers only they can pull into bike lanes, pick up street hails, and make left turns on Market.
She and the taxi companies will keep pushing, even if they're constantly upstaged. A couple of weeks before the planned launch for SFTaxiLive, talk show celeb Conan O'Brien videotaped himself taking a Lyft through Los Angeles with rapper Ice Cube and comedian Kevin Hart. The gag instantly went viral. In contrast, San Francisco cabs have the scene in Blue Jasmine when a bleary-eyed Cate Blanchett steps out of a taxi on South Van Ness Avenue. It's not exactly a rousing product endorsement.