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Looking for fares in all the wrong places

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Taxi medallions were supposed to be a safety net for drivers as they got older. But for those struggling to pay off loans, it’s an albatross. (Cindy Chew/2008 S.F. Examiner)
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http://sfexaminer.com/category/the-city/sf-news-columns/i-drive-sf/

Last Friday night, after cruising the Mission, I decide to check out the Glen Park BART station — part of my recent effort to patrol potentially lucrative spots off the beaten path. Turning onto Diamond, I see Loco in the loading zone and pull in behind his cab to say what’s up.

“How long have you been waiting?” I ask.

“Not long.”

While discussing health problems and money woes, we shiver in the chilly night air and surreptitiously eyeball the BART passengers emerging from the station.

Loco has a paid medallion. As he describes the headaches and heartbreaks of paying off a $250,000 taxi medallion in the Age of Uber, his story echoes those of other paid medallion holders I’ve spoken to. It’s always tragic, since the only solution is for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency to admit that the program to sell taxi medallions is a complete failure and offer financial amnesty to anyone who forked out a quarter of a million dollars for their worthless piece of tin.

The medallion was supposed to be a safety net for drivers as they got older. But for those struggling to pay off loans when the vehicle-for-hire business is in the toilet, it’s an albatross.

“I’d be better off as a ‘gate and gas’ driver,” Loco points out.

Unlike in the past, when a medallion guaranteed the holder a monthly check from a cab company along with other perks, nowadays it barely ensures a discounted gate.

There are rumors that 16 medallions were surrendered to the SFMTA in 2016. And so far this year, more than 30 have been turned in. But while it may seem appealing to march up to the seventh floor of the SFMTA building and chuck the worthless piece of tin at the Taxi Services window, this isn’t always an option.

“I can’t default on the loan,” Loco says. “I’d lose everything.”

Adding insult to injury, medallion holders are now being pressured to buy and run their own taxicabs.

Owner-operators have their taxis 24/7 and, when they’re not driving, they can lease them out to drivers with A-cards, but they’re required to pay a taxi company for the color scheme and maintain commercial insurance and licenses to operate a vehicle-for-hire on the streets of San Francisco and at San Francisco International Airport. As an incentive, the color scheme provides dispatch service, but, depending on the radio, this may just amount to more than unnecessary equipment in the cab.

Of course, if the owner-operator has a paid medallion, besides the fees to the taxi company, fees to the SFMTA, the cost of maintenance and repairs for the vehicle, they also have that pesky $250,000 loan to contend with.

Some owners have refinanced their medallions to pay as little as possible, basically the interest, leaving the premium hanging for the uncertain future. Others, like Loco, are operating at a loss.

“How are you able to survive?” I ask.

“Savings … borrowing money …”

On a cold April night, looking for a warm body to fill the backseat, it’s easy to feel like nobody gives a damn about taxi drivers anymore.

“The SFMTA sold us these medallions — dangled them in front of us like carrots — then did nothing to stop Uber and Lyft from entering the market with predatory pricing and assume control,” Loco says. “That was the golden moment for the S.H.I.T.S. Now, we’re just living in the aftermath.”

Once there’s nothing left to do but change the subject, a hipster couple walks up to Loco’s cab.

“You need a taxi?” he asks. “Hop in!”

Back in my cab, I turn the heat up and stay hopeful as each train unloads a few potential fares. Eventually, a black woman wearing shorts and a tank top opens my back door.

“I need to go to Union and Mason,” she slurs.

“Russian Hill?” I ask, trying to make sure I understood her. She’s obviously drunk.

“Yeah. But …” She unfolds a few bills. “I only have $15. Is that enough?”

“Sure.” It’s a $20 ride but, at this hour, I’m happy just to have a fare.

“Thank you so much,” she says genuinely, handing me a ten and a five. “It’s so nice and warm in here …”

During the ride, she makes a phone call and tells a friend she’d gone to a club, got a little too tipsy and lost her purse. Reassures the person that she’s fine.

“I’m in a taxi going home.”

She doesn’t say much as I careen through the off-road conditions up Van Ness. And that’s all right. I’ve got plenty to think about already.

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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