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Controversial taxi rules have not reduced SFO trips, but may be driving cabbies away

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Taxi drivers wait for passengers at the Terminal 2 taxi stand at San Francisco International Airport on Friday, Feb. 8, 2019. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Taxi trips at the San Francisco International Airport remain steady after controversial new restrictions were instituted early this month, but those rules may be causing some cabbies to flee the industry, according to Yellow Cab.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency plan to limit some taxi drivers’ access to SFO debuted on Feb. 1 to protests from taxi drivers, some of whom said it would hurt airport service.

SFO data shows that has not happened so far; the number of taxi rides taken by passengers from SFO has remained steady this month.

However, early reports from one of San Francisco’s largest taxi companies, Yellow Cab, suggest that rather than returning to city streets, drivers cut out of airport pickups may instead be quitting the industry altogether.

SEE RELATED: SF to ban most of taxi fleet from SFO to help struggling cabbies

SFO pickups are considered to be a lucrative life-line for a struggling cab industry.

In an effort to help taxi drivers taxi drivers who paid $250,000 for medallions under new city regulations between 2010 and 2012, SFMTA officials decided to give them higher priority in SFO lines to pick up passengers. Taxi drivers who do not have purchased medallions, which are called “earned” medallions in cabbie parlance, must park at a separate lot at SFO and get second crack at passengers.

According to SFO, on Friday Feb. 1, the day the new restrictions took effect, there were roughly 2,447 taxi pickups at SFO, compared to 2,168 taxi pickups on January 25, the Friday one week before, according to SFO data.

SFO measures pickups, but not drop-offs.

There were roughly 19,126 taxi pickups at SFO the week of February 3-9, compared to roughly 21,184 pickups for the same week in 2018. The fluctuation is mostly due to the number of passengers flying through the airport, said spokesperson Doug Yakel.

“We have continually had more than enough taxicabs to meet passenger demand,” Yakel said.

SFMTA started the plan as a way to help paid medallion holders, many of whom are struggling to pay off the loans they took out to buy their medallions just as the industry hit a downturn, make more money.

The stakes are high — the San Francisco Federal Credit Union, which holds many of these loans, is suing The City over what it views as a failure by SFMTA to save the taxi industry from its rivals, Uber and Lyft.

But Kate Toran, head of taxi services at SFMTA, said “early indicators show that we are heading in the right direction.”

Roughly 160 paid medallions have been foreclosed upon, she said, but Yellow Cab is planning on allowing 140 of those medallions back into operation due to taxi driver demand. “Since the new rules have taken effect, Yellow Cab has put 56 of these foreclosed medallions back into service and more are entering service as the paperwork is completed,” Toran said.

At the same time, however, drivers using “earned” medallions appear to be quitting the industry, said Chris Sweis, who owns Yellow Cab of San Francisco.

While SFMTA staff hoped taxi drivers who lost SFO access would start to drive in The City more often, Sweis said “that’s not the case.”

“We’ve already had a lot of drivers turn in their (medallions),” Sweis said shortly after the SFO ban was instituted last week. “I have about thirty sitting in my drawer as we speak.”

Sweis claims the fleet of cabs in San Francisco has “gone down by 260.”

“In ours, it all happened the last few days,” he said last week. “And more coming off the road every day. The drivers say they don’t want to drive them anymore.”

Shortly before the ban was instituted in late January, taxi drivers cut off from airport pickups from the ban circled City Hall and called on Mayor London Breed to stall the SFMTA’s decision.


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