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The art of driving a taxi

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If Uber and Lyft are the McDonalds of driving for hire, than taxi drivers are “artisanal transporation engineers.” (Courtesy Christian Lewis)


When done properly, no two cab rides should ever be alike …

Last month, during the Fancy Foods Show, I was posted up outside 888 Brannan, where an after party associated with the convention was winding down.

Despite the apparent lack of need for taxis — according to Hackers, they’re all Phonies inside — I’d just dropped at Lennon Studios a few blocks away and, well, not much else is going on.

A few minutes later, a woman approaches my cab and taps on my window.

“Do you take credit cards?” she asks.

“Of course!” I respond enthusiastically.

“Great! My Lyft app is acting up. It won’t let me request a ride.”

“Oh, that’s too bad,” I say, feigning concern.

On the drive to the St. Francis, she gives me the lowdown on the specialty food convention. Then asks if I drive for Lyft as well.

Now, regular readers of this column may remember my stock response to this frequent inquiry is to claim not to own a car. Or to point out that the risks associated with operating a vehicle for hire with inadequate insurance and limited safeguards are too foolhardy, even for a lummox like me. Only on the rarest occasions will I mention my background as an Uber/Lyft driver, and that, from my own experience, using your personal car as a taxicab is less sustainable than driving a real one.

This time, though, instead of my usual attempt to suppress the subject outright, all this talk of artisanal cuisine and the farm-to-table movement offers such an ideal opportunity for a slew of metaphors that I can’t resist …

“Well, it’s like comparing small-batch ice cream, chocolate, cheese or whisky to mass-produced food and booze that all tastes the same,” I say. “Uber and Lyft offer a homogenous stale experience. That’s the point, isn’t it? No matter where you go, instead of figuring out the local modus operandi, you just open the app and it’s like you never left home. They’re the McDonald’s of transportation. Taxi driving is the opposite of that. As my friend Colin puts it, we’re — I cough for effect — ‘artisan transportation engineers.’”


Even though it’s hard to tell if my parallels are hitting their mark, I keep blathering on as more food/transportation analogies pop up in my head.

“Plus, unlike Uber and Lyft drivers who travel from all over the state to work The City, taxi drivers are locally sourced. And since the city of San Francisco requires that all taxis are hybrids, we leave a smaller carbon footprint. Uber and Lyft, whose drivers can operate anything from Priuses to minivans to F-250 pickup trucks, are like factory farms run by Monsanto.”

At Howard, an Uber/Lyft driver turns right into oncoming traffic. A clamor of horns and shouting pedestrians ensues.

“You see?” I guffaw. “Where’s the craft in that?”

“Oh my gosh!”

“They’re like those hot dog-sellers outside the clubs at 2 a.m. Who knows where they get their ingredients? But it’s probably the cheapest quality they can find. It could be horse meat, for all anyone knows.”

Too grisly? I think. Perhaps. Our conversation fades into silence.

As we pass Ellis on Cyril Magnin, she asks, “Shouldn’t you have gone right to get on Powell?”

“I suppose. But this route, in my experience, is smoother. Technically, if I were following protocol, I would have taken Sixth Street to Taylor, then Post to Powell, so as to drop you off curbside at the hotel entrance. But since it’s late at night, I’ll just flip around on Powell.”

While waiting for the light at Geary, I suggest we take care of the credit card transaction.

“How much is the fare?” she asks. “Oh, $9.55. I thought it would be more. Here, I have enough cash.”

“People always think taxis are more expensive,” I point out. “Kinda like that misconception that farmers markets cost more than grocery stores.”

“That’s absurd!” she exclaims. “You’re buying directly from the producers … without a middle man.”

“I know, right?” Now that we’re back on common ground, I should just say goodbye, but can’t resist one last comparison.

“It’s the same thing with taxis. The City determines the rates and rules — similar to how farmers get their crops certified organic — but beyond that, it’s just me, the cab and you … the customer.”

She smiles. “I like that.”

“Well, I hope you get your Lyft app sorted out,” I say cheerfully. “Have a great night.”

Kelly Dessaint is a San Francisco taxi driver. His zine, “Behind the Wheel,” is available at bookstores throughout The City. Write to Kelly at piltdownlad@gmail.com or visit his blog at www.idrivesf.com.

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