Taxis, badly losing the battle on San Francisco’s streets, are finally fighting back.
After seeing 65 percent of their business migrate to ride services like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar, taxi drivers and company owners, at odds for decades, have joined forces — not only with one another but with their overseer, the Municipal Transportation Agency.
Their common goal is to save the taxi industry — highly regulated by the city as part of its transportation network — from extinction at the hands of the largely unregulated upstarts, which use smartphone apps that allow customers to summon and pay for rides from drivers using their personal cars.
“We’re at a real crossroads here, and we’re on a mission,” said Kate Toran, MTA’s director of taxis and accessible services.
The battle to save taxis is being waged on two fronts: in the halls and meeting rooms of the MTA, the California Public Utilities Commission and the Legislature, as well as inside the taxi industry, where companies are belatedly adopting their own taxi-hailing apps, modernizing cabs and training drivers to be kinder and gentler — in essence, emulating the new ride services.
Whether it will work remains to be seen. But MTA officials say it’s critical that a regulated taxi industry survive. Unlike app-based ride services, Toran said, taxis are required to serve all neighborhoods, provide accessible service to disabled people, participate in the subsidized paratransit service for seniors and the disabled, allow calls to be booked by phone and meet air-quality requirements.
Since Lyft, UberX and Sidecar rolled their app-based services onto the streets in 2012, taxi drivers and owners have cried foul. They argue that their new competitors are breaking the law, endangering the public and unfairly stealing business. But the new companies insist they’re filling a gap, modernizing an outdated business and providing much-needed rides to a badly neglected market.
Drivers called on the MTA to crack down on the newcomers, which they called “rogue cabs” ignoring city ordinances, but the state Public Utilities Commission, which regulates limousines and other types of passenger transportation carriers, claimed jurisdiction. The commission has imposed some regulations but left the ride services unencumbered by the sorts of rules, insurance requirements and licensing fees that cities impose on taxis.
For much of the past two years, the taxi industry has focused on complaining, to little avail, that the ride services are breaking the law and should face the same regulations they do. They’ve called on the MTA and San Francisco Police Department to crack down on the ride services, but city officials have said the state and the PUC have taken control of the industry.
In recent months, however, the taxi industry’s tactics have taken a turn. While still arguing for regulation, they’ve taken their case to Sacramento, where legislators passed, and Gov. Jerry Brown signed, a bill requiring minimum levels of insurance. They’ve also continued to lobby the PUC, which is considering adding rules for ride services, and has been looking into issues of disabled access, serving all neighborhoods and “surge pricing,” a practice in which the services — especially Uber — boost rates when demand increases.
Toran said the MTA has proposed working with the PUC to establish regulations for the “for hire” ride industry, and said there are some signs the state agency is interested.
Taxi operators have also persuaded the MTA to reduce some of the operating fees it must pay, a variety of fees and charges — and the agency has agreed. The MTA is also considering further fee reductions — especially as incentives to keep more taxis with wheelchair ramps operating — and allowing cabs to be wrapped in advertising to help generate revenue.
“The MTA is working to be really responsive,” Toran said.
Taxi operators, however, say that’s not enough. They want the MTA to start issuing citations to ride service vehicles that use transit- and taxi-only lanes and designated taxi stands. City ordinances restrict use of those zones to taxis only.
“We’re paying for those zones with our fees, and they’re not,” said Mary McGuire, a taxi driver who also runs a driver training program. “Can we get some enforcement out there?”
Hansu Kim, president of DeSoto Cab, said protecting that privilege for taxis “would go a long way.”
Ed Reiskin, the MTA’s transportation director, said the agency would step up enforcement. Malcolm Heinicke, an MTA board member, said the agency should also consider some flexibility in the fixed rates taxis are required to charge.
The taxi industry and the MTA are also working to become as convenient, modern and service-focused as the ride services. After decades of resisting efforts for a central dispatch system and more recent efforts by the agency to develop a single, citywide taxi-hailing app, a handful of apps that allow customers to hail and pay for cabs with their phones have emerged.
The two largest cover most of the city’s taxi fleet. About 80 percent of the city’s cabs use the Flywheel app, while 60 percent use the Curb app. Yellow Cab, the city’s largest fleet, recently launched its own Yellow Cab Co-op Smart App, which, unlike ride-service or the other taxi apps, allows passengers to pay by credit card or cash. Heinicke would like the MTA to require all taxis to use apps.
Taxi companies are also working with the MTA to emphasize better customer service in the training programs required for all cab drivers and to crack down on drivers who fail to accept credit cards. All taxis now have credit card readers as well as electronic data systems and in-cab cameras.
While taxis have stepped up their game, ride services are also fighting to draw more business with lower fares and promotions. They continue to draw customers — and drivers — away from the taxi companies. But Kim, who has considered leaving the taxi business and operating as a ride service, said he believes the industry can survive.
“We can beat those services at their own game,” he said. “We can have a vital business even without (MTA) regulation.”
©2014 the San Francisco Chronicle