Fast Response to Speeding Cab Story
Driving good cabbies away: I read your article on the taxi short line at SFO with amusement ["The SFO Cannonball Run," Matt Smith, Feature, 3/24]. In short, the problem is not with the system itself but with the drivers.
I've been a professional driver since I was 16 and am now semiretired. I was here in the '70s, when everything worked. In the '70s, a shift cost about $22, gas was around $6 a shift, and $75 net was a good day. Rent was around $200 a month for a studio. Now? A decent SRO runs about $900 a month. The total cost to operate a cab for a driver is an average of $175 a day, just to break even. Figure in what it costs to live on top of that, and you might actually discover the real problem.
The short system does work. I stopped picking up at the airport when the wait exceeded an hour and a half on the average. I also realized it wasn't worth a ticket, or the loss of my license, or an accident to make that short to beat the system.
San Francisco has been screwing over its drivers since 1981, and now has the drivers it deserves. Current drivers don't speak English, don't know where they're going, and are desperate and willing to do anything to make their overhead. No medical, no insurance or workers' comp (for the most part), and no job security.
As long as the system allows the greedy owners and the city to put a heavy onus upon the drivers themselves, you will have nothing but amateurs hustling people around, desperately looking for enough money to cover their expenses and maybe even have a decent meal when they get off shift. God forbid one of their kids might need braces or emergency medical treatment.
San Francisco, you have the cab drivers you deserve!
Not so fast: I feel Matt Smith misrepresented what I said about this situation. First of all, I said it could be devastating to eliminate the short system, but that it depends what is done to replace it. The ones who would be devastated are those who wait hours in line and get an $8.05 ride to the Millbrae Marriott, then have to wait another couple of hours or go back to the city. It would not even out over time, because most drivers who get burned a few times in a row will stop working the airport altogether. If this happens, there won't be enough cabs to service the airport during busy times.
Smith's article implies that it's common to get several long "shorts" in a row and for taxi drivers to clean up. Most days or nights at the airport do not end up being so lucrative. In fact, many drivers already don't go to the airport because more often than not, it's just the opposite, and you end up waiting much of your shift for rides that barely cover the rental fees for the cab.
Most experienced S.F. drivers do not take their passengers for wild rides and drive dangerously. The driver Smith rode with had been driving a cab barely two years and already had a couple of wrecks. Most S.F. cabbies have driven longer than that for a living, and have learned to be careful drivers in order to maintain their records and their jobs.
The San Francisco Cab Drivers Association (SFCDA) is recommending the use of GPS to determine if a ride from the airport is a "short" or not, so that the criterion is based on geography. not time. This would eliminate the incentive to speed, yet also be fair to those who wait long hours in line. If the short line is completely eliminated, we feel a $20 minimum airport trip fee will be necessary, not "a $20 flat fee," as was misquoted in the article.
Matt Smith responds: Motivating drivers with a very short-term outlook to stop working the airport wouldn't be a bad outcome. The way things are now, hundreds of drivers sit idle for hours every day at the airport while there's a shortage of cabs in the city. For drivers working the airport for a month or two, things would even out over time. There's no need for a "solution" to the ephemeral short-run "problem," and as a practical matter, a $20 minimum is merely a rationale to slip in a fare hike.
As the story notes, the driver I accompanied was in collisions he says weren't his fault, and that had nothing to do with the run to the airport. Regarding "flat fee" versus "minimum," both terms were used by people I spoke to for the article, and for the short trips under discussion, the meaning is interchangeable.