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One app to rule them all

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Despite their expected resistance, even taxi drivers use ride-hail apps from time to time. (Courtesy photo)

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Every other Thursday, before I start my shift at National, I head into The City several hours early to see my shrink in Laurel Heights. I usually take BART to The Embarcadero and hop on the 1-California, the action-packed Muni line that charges up Sacramento through Chinatown and into Pac Heights.

At times, it can be quite a thrill ride.

A few weeks back, I was getting on the bus at Davis when an unusually large crowd filled the back seats. I sat down in front, but once we were out of the Financial and elderly folks begun boarding, I surrendered my seat and hung on to a pole for dear life as we made our ascent up Nob Hill. At each stop, more and more people got on, until the front of the bus was packed, and a white-haired gentleman, unable to find a seat, fell down the aisle into the arms of a terrified tourist. This prompted another white-haired man to proclaim loudly, “There are too many old people on this bus!” While he cackled to himself, the tourist’s wife shifted nervously in her seat.

As much as I love the excitement of taking Muni, this last Thursday, after a long night of cab driving, I leave my Temescal apartment with very little time to spare. I hurry down Telegraph to the MacArthur BART station, crunching Oakland diamonds under my tread-worn Fluevogs as I sidestep flattened juice pouches and pun-laden Jack in the Box wrappers.

At the Civic Center stop, I run up the stairs to flag a cab on Market. It’s usually not that difficult to find one trolling for a fare mid-afternoon, but each cab that passes me is occupied.

With the top of the hour rapidly approaching and no ride in sight, I pull out my phone and open the Flywheel app. I’m immediately matched with Gary, a Yellow cab driver, just a few blocks away.

Already five minutes late for my appointment, we head up Van Ness to Pine. Gary yawns and tells me he’s been empty for the past hour. I tell him I’ve been trying to find a cab for 10 minutes. We laugh, as this is a common enough scenario. I bring up centralized dispatch, which leads to a discussion of YoTaxi, Yellow’s dedicated app, and Flywheel. He says most Yellow drivers run both apps because neither generates enough business to warrant exclusivity.

Although Flywheel is the closest thing San Francisco cab drivers have to centralized dispatch, not enough people seem to know about the app, due to a lack of marketing and/or the confusion over its dual use as the name of a taxi company. And despite various grievances many drivers have with how Flywheel does business, the majority of us believe in the future of apps as a form of centralized dispatch and keep Flywheel on during our shifts and hope for the best.

Another example of how drivers have crossed color schemes to unite is the SF Hackers group, which has about 200 members and is celebrating its one-year anniversary this month. Using the GroupMe app, we communicate with each other in real time and post updates about when events are breaking, traffic conditions and wait times at SFO. There’s also more than a little chitchat to keep things upbeat and friendly.

So far, the only arguments I’ve heard against centralized dispatch are from cab companies, who want to protect their brand, and dispatchers, who don’t want to lose their jobs because they make more money dispatching than driving.

While the latter seems reasonable on an individual level, the former makes no sense at all, since cab companies — unlike Uber and Lyft — don’t get a cut of our fares. They’re only leasing us cabs. Dispatch is just part of the package. So what does it matter to them how many orders we get or how we get them?

As we approach my destination, Gary and I have come no closer to solving the problem of connecting drivers and passengers. So I contemplate what to discuss with my shrink this week instead. Because no matter how much I enjoy babbling on and on about all this taxi crap, I’m certainly not going to pay someone to listen to me do it.

Kelly Dessaint is a San Francisco taxi driver. Write to him at piltdownlad@gmail.com and @piltdownlad.