The Last American Cowboys

Driving a cab in San Francisco was my salvation — until I realized how screwed the taxi system really is.

Driver 8
Driver 8
Jul 21, 2015 · 8 min read

By Driver 8

Nobody sets out in life to be a cab driver. Not the sons and daughters of cab drivers — not now, not any more. Not even the immigrants who dominate the industry: for them, driving is just something to do until they’ve saved enough money to open a restaurant, or until they’ve learned more English, or because they can’t get a job as a doctor or engineer like the one they had back home. Once upon a time, sure, driving a taxi may have been viable career option. But these days, driving a taxi is a job of last resort, a consolation prize. It’s just something people do while chasing their dreams, or because their dreams didn’t work out the way they’d planned. For me, it was the second reason.

When I first met Walter, I was in rehab. I’d managed to crash and burn my six-figure marketing job, and I needed help. Walter had been through the same program, and was invited to come back and speak to us a successful graduate. Sure, he was driving a taxi to help pay for the college degree that most people would have gotten 30 years sooner. But Walter had pride. He liked driving a cab, and he talked about it excitedly. When he showed me his gleaming chrome driver’s badge, he held it out like it was an Olympic medal. Walter made me want to have a badge like that. So, as he was getting ready to leave, I asked him to walk me through the process of getting a taxi driver’s permit, and a job. It wasn’t until much later that I realized a cab yard is the place where dreams go to die.

I started driving a taxi intending only to do it for just a few months. It was supposed to be a kick — a new life experience that I could check off the list. What I never saw coming was that it turned out to be the first job I ever truly loved. Cab driving was devoid of all the things I hated about work in the past — chief among those being responsibility. When I drove a taxi, there was no boss there to pressure me, no endless meetings, no tedious conference calls to endure. If I made a mistake (assuming it wasn’t one that involved crashing into anything, or anyone), I got a do-over and a clean slate with the next fare. Even better yet, no one, and I mean no one, was monitoring my job performance.

I loved that there was no ambiguity in cab driving; you picked someone up at point A, and you dropped them off at point B. That was it. Unlike any job I’d ever had, it came with the power to say “No” (despite the rules saying otherwise). If I heard a cab driver complaining about stress, I’d roll my eyes — they didn’t even know the meaning of the word. Driving a taxi made me feel like I had been freed from the cubical prisons of my previous existence; like I was the last American cowboy. While my good fortune was often the direct result of someone else’s misfortune — “I missed the last train,” “my car got towed,” “I just got out of the hospital” — they were always happy to see me, even if that happiness was strictly borne out of necessity. At night, I slept like a baby, and it paid way better than it should have.

There are lots of reasons why driving a cab in San Francisco paid so well. First, the metered fare, is second only to Las Vegas in terms of price. Second is something called meter-and-a-half fares — the holy grail of cab driving. That’s where the law requires passengers to pay 150 percent of the metered fare for any ride over 15 miles beyond the city limits. It’s especially valuable in San Francisco, because only SF taxicabs are officially allowed to operate at the airport, which serves the entire region. “Flying in for a meeting in Cupertino? That’ll be $142.00 please!” “Just back from vacation and heading home to Santa Rosa? That’ll be $300.00 please, and don’t forget to tip your driver!” Towards the end of your shift, after you’ve covered all your expenses, meter-and-a-half fares could allow you to make over $100 per hour in profit. How many professional jobs pay like that?

But the single biggest reason the job paid so well was the undersupply of taxis allowed by the city. During my first few years of driving a cab in San Francisco, it was common for people to literally throw themselves in the path of my oncoming taxi, or to chase after me in a desperate attempt to get me to pick them up.

Even so, cab drivers (including myself) were adamant that fewer, not more, taxicabs were needed. We argued that during slow times there were so many taxis that it was impossible to earn a living, which was true. The city argued that during peak times there were so few taxis that it was impossible to get one, which was also true. So, the city did what cities often do; every few years, enough new taxis would be added to assuage the pissed-off populace, but not enough to cause an all-out revolt by pissed-off cab drivers. In that environment, cabbies were often able to cherry-pick their passengers, and everybody wanted my cell phone number.

Still, even with all that, I found myself wrestling with the fact that I was now a cab driver. When meeting someone new, I found myself evading the inevitable, “So, what do you do?” question. It just wasn’t the same as when I carried a business card with the words, “Vice President” embossed glossily on it, and I didn’t want to constantly enter into the debate on taxi availability that was guaranteed to follow.

So I got by by reassuring myself that there was nobility in all work. Trouble is, nobility flies out the window when you’re cleaning some stranger’s vomit out of your cab. There’s nothing noble about finding yourself chasing a runner (someone who bails without paying you) down the street, or cautiously talking a schizophrenic out of the backseat, or being spit on by an angry bicyclist, or finding that the hundred-dollar bill you just got paid with is counterfeit. Once, after spotting a man in the distance who I thought was trying to flag me down, I pulled up and saw that he was actually giving me the finger. I yelled out my open window, “Why are you flipping me off?” He looked at me and flatly replied, “Because you’re a cab.” Such nobility.

If you actually want to understand the taxi business, there’s one really important thing you need to know: A cab company is really just a rent-a-car agency, and that the cab drivers are their customers. Perhaps the biggest misconception about taxis is the belief that ordering a cab is like ordering a pizza. It isn’t. When you order a pizza, you believe that the person on the other end of the phone has an interest in successfully delivering a pizza to you, and to do so in a reasonable amount of time. If you had to worry that the driver might sell your pizza to someone else along the way, or might choose not to deliver your pizza at all, you’d probably wonder how such a place could stay in business?

But what if there was only one pizza place allowed to operate in town?

In fact, ordering a taxi is nothing like ordering a pizza. Ordering a taxi is more like placing an ad saying you want a pizza. The cab driver may choose to deliver that service to you, or may choose to deliver your ride to someone else — maybe picking up a flag along the way, or ditching your dispatch altogether in hopes of a more profitable fare. But, critically, nobody else is allowed to deliver a ride to you, the drivers — who are in huge demand at peak times — can sell the rides to anyone they choose, and because they are independent contractors, the taxi company cannot compel them to fulfill your order. That’s the fundamental flaw that companies like Uber and Lyft have been able to exploit; when you’re sitting in the back of a taxi, you are not the customer — the driver is.

Even if they didn’t understand why, people developed strategies to cope with this problem. They’d call multiple cab companies in hope that at least one would actually show up; or they’d call hours ahead of time, to make sure they didn’t miss their flight, job interview, or dinner reservation. Once I drove a black guy who waited inside the bar while a white woman hailed me because no cabs would stop for him. People living out in the western reaches of the city often told me they would sometimes choose to stay in on weekends because they were worried they wouldn’t be able to get a ride back home afterwards. Thing is, people tolerated the scarcity and unreliability of San Francisco’s taxi service because they had no other option.

About two years ago, a passenger told me about something called SideCar; an app that you could enter your location into and have someone — in their own personal car — pick you up and take you wherever you wanted to go. It sounded ridiculous, definitely illegal, and I knew the city would never allow such a thing.

It wasn’t long that I started hearing about something called Uber, and another app called Lyft, which did the same thing as SideCar, but the passenger paid for the Lyft ride by making a suggested “donation” to the driver.

It was so obvious to me that this was simply a transparent attempt to skirt city laws prohibiting the use of personal cars for paid transportation. Essentially, these cars would be nothing more than hi-tech gypsy cabs. Couldn’t anyone see that this would mean deregulation of the taxi industry? These apps went against everything I’d come to believe as a cab driver, and the very idea of their untrained, underinsured, drivers went against everything I stood for.

Back then, if you’d told me that one day I would choose to do exactly that— to start driving for a rideshare service over driving a cab, I would have laughed in your face. No fucking way would I ever become a scab and join those fools.

Part 2: The Real Reason Taxis Are So Hard to Find in San Francisco

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Life in the new economy.

Driver 8

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Driver 8

We’ve been on this shift too long.

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