I was talking with a journalist recently about the inevitable death of the taxi industry. He seemed surprised by my response, that taxis aren’t going anywhere.
“They may not look the same in the future,” I said, “or function the same, but when the day comes that a retired couple from Omaha flying into SFO is required to not only possess a smartphone but also download an app, give a third-party company their personal information, agree to terms of service that allow them to track their movements and then sell that information to other companies for marketing purposes just to get a ride into The City is the day you can officially say San Francisco has lost its soul.”
We were at The Orbit Room, and while he wrote down my comment, one of those old streetcars from Vienna clattered past on Market Street.
No, taxis aren’t going anywhere. And automated vehicles are a long, long way off. In San Francisco, anyway. Unless The City invests millions of dollars in public infrastructure.
Several months ago, I drove two guys who picked my brain about which streets in The City were the worst to drive on. As soon as I found out they worked for Ford, I challenged them on the issue of self-driving cars.
“You know they’ll never work here, don’t you?” I demanded. “It’s hard enough for a human to drive in this city, much less a computer. Besides potholes the size of Lake Merritt, many streets don’t even have clearly marked lanes. How are lasers supposed to detect something that’s not there? It’s impossible, right?”
Both guys nodded.
No, taxis aren’t going anywhere.
Sure, this isn’t the popular opinion. Even my shrink has referred to me as a canary in the coal mine, implying that my experience driving a taxi, as documented in these pages, is some kind of barometer of the industry.
Now, if we’re being honest, things aren’t so great for me personally these days. I’ve reached a level of poverty that is absolutely terrifying. I’ve never been this broke with so much at stake. Each month, I struggle to pay the rent without accruing late fees or bank charges from bounced checks. I have holes in my pants, holes in shoes and holes in my teeth. I need new glasses. I need a new phone. And, according to my wife, I need a new job.
Driving a taxi isn’t get better. It’s getting worse. I wouldn’t recommend this career to anyone I didn’t hate.
But what does my experience say about the industry as a whole?
Three years ago, I stopped driving for Uber and Lyft because it was no longer sustainable for me. After a year of full-time driving for the two companies, my car was ragged out, my bank account was overdrawn and my morale was at an all-time low. I wouldn’t have recommended that gig to anyone I didn’t hate.
Yet, Uber and Lyft are still flourishing today. Why? Because there’s a sucker born every minute. There will always be someone desperate enough to work for less than another person.
The same thing is happening with taxis. There are essentially three types of drivers left: the indentured servants, those who bought medallions and can’t give up without declaring bankruptcy; the old timers too stubborn to admit defeat who continue to drive a taxi as a form of resistance; and those who can’t, for whatever reason, do the Uber/Lyft thing.
The sad thing about all this, though, is the false analogy between taxis and coal mines. How are the two similar? Do people really believe that Uber and Lyft exist in some magical realm where they don’t operate the same as taxicabs?
Uber and Lyft drivers transport people in a vehicle from Point A to Point B for money. Same as a taxi. The only thing innovative about Uber and Lyft (since taxis had apps before Uber and Lyft existed) is their ability to run cab companies without being required to adhere to the same laws and regulations through corrupt backroom dealings and semantic subterfuge. And a public more than willing to accept a cut-rate alternative as long as it’s cheap. Who cares that someone else has to make up the difference?
No, taxis aren’t going anywhere.
As far as being a lucrative form of employment … Oh yeah, that ship has sailed. How many dead canaries do you need to prove that?
Kelly Dessaint is a San Francisco taxi driver. His zine, “Behind the Wheel,” is available at bookstores throughout The City. Write to Kelly at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his blog at www.idrivesf.com.