As the prime movers behind the Uberization of San Francisco’s taxi industry, Flywheel, the taxi-hailing app, and Flywheel, the taxi company, seem so intent on emulating Uber that they’re even taking a page out of deposed CEO Travis Kalanick’s “Guide to Being a Complete Dirtbag.”
Last Wednesday, Flywheel sent out a message informing drivers not affiliated with one of their color scheme partners that we’ll no longer be receiving orders through the app. Unless, that is, we switch to one of the six color scheme partners.
Drivers were understandably outraged that Hansu Kim, the owner of Flywheel, the app, and Flywheel, the taxi company, would actually kneecap 1,000s of drivers who rely on the app for part of their income, as well as stymie users who expect Flywheel to provide prompt service and, through this divisive act, traduce the industry in the public eye.
As one driver put it: “Just when you think it can’t get any worse …”
But wait. It gets worse.
Since the color scheme partners listed in their first message all use Flywheel’s TaxiOS, instead of the traditional taximeter, most drivers assumed that was the proviso: Adopt their backend, app-based metering system and shoulder the massive costs associated with acquiring hundreds of smartphones to run the app, removing the old taximeter equipment and then paying them monthly service and network charges and a percentage of Flywheel orders, credit card-processing fees and dispatch orders routed through the app.
Displaying Uber-like greed, Flywheel seems to want a piece of all our action, on top of what we’re already giving the cab companies for leasing vehicles.
In return, we get the Flywheel orders back, for which we’d been paying them a cut of appropriately 13 percent.
Now that’s what you call a hornswoggling.
Of course, the language in the Flywheel message is vague. Intentionally, no doubt, to further sow confusion and mask their veiled extortion.
Nowhere do they explicitly say adopting the TaxiOS system is a requirement to remain on the platform. Although Hansu’s comments to Joe Fitzgerald in his San Francisco Examiner article about “proper insurance” and maintaining “service standards” come off as more of a smokescreen to hide his real motives.
Even though Flywheel accounts for about one-eighth of my taxi income, I’ve always been a huge supporter of the app. For me, it’s not just about acquiring fares I wouldn’t normally get, but accommodating people who want to use their phones to hail taxis.
That doesn’t mean I don’t have a long list of grievances with how the company operates.
Since they don’t advertise, hardly anyone has heard of Flywheel. It’s extremely frustrating to hear things like, “If only you guys had an app to compete with Uber…”
Additionally, they don’t fix important features in the app, like the ability to hail a taxi on the street and pay through Flywheel. Or the toplight situation. With the traditional taximeter, once activated, the toplight goes out. But cabs running the TaxiOS system have to turn the toplight off manually. Many drivers forget to do this, creating confusion for other taxis drivers and people trying to flag a cab. Couldn’t they just use Bluetooth technology? Or add a simple pop-up that reminds drivers to turn the damn toplight off?
Then, there’s the name, which offers no indication of what kind of service the app provides. Their logo looks like they ripped off the Philadelphia Flyers. And when Hansu rebranded DeSoto, the oldest cab company in The City, as Flywheel Taxi, he just created more confusion.
Due to Flywheel’s lack of transparency, drivers have been trying to figure out the connection between the app and the taxi company for years. Hansu has always been cagey about his involvement, despite turning the DeSoto fleet into roving billboards for the app company.
Last year, after a Chicago company called Cabconnect bought Flywheel, I met with the president, who told me acquiring the app was like getting the keys to a Ferrari when you’re used to driving a Hyundai. Now, it’s been revealed through the recent Examiner articles that Hansu bought the Flywheel app at the end of 2017, saving it from certain death.
The hardest part of the Flywheel brouhaha is figuring out what rumors to believe …
One month, Flywheel is issuing debit cards to pay drivers instead of using direct deposit, and the next month, they’re eliminating two-thirds of The City’s drivers from the platform.
Then, two days after that announcement, they send out another message claiming that several fleets, including National/Veterans, are in the process of becoming “Flywheel color scheme partners.”
Does that mean National is going to replace our taximeters with smart phones running TaxiOS? When pressed for answers, Alex, the manager at National, only said, “Everything is going to be fine.”
After that first Flywheel message, I was resolved to bail on the app. Their reversal two days later didn’t exactly quell the mistrust they’d sown with that original duplicitous move.
Even if this isn’t about TaxiOS and just a pissing match between Hansu and Chris Sweis, the CEO of the nascent Citywide/Yellow/Luxor conglomerate, it proves that Flywheel cannot be trusted to oversee a vital part of the industry’s survival.
Using the Flywheel app as leverage to pressure drivers to take sides is bad enough, but just imagine if Flywheel were to get its TaxiOS in a majority of San Francisco cabs … What would stop them from pulling another stunt like this in the future by threatening to cripple the industry unless we give them a higher percentage?
It would be like hiring Lex Luther to run the Department of Public Works.
The only viable solution, at this point anyway, is a city-run app. As much as the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency has screwed over the taxi drivers, it’s hard to imagine them doing a worse job at maintaining a taxi-hailing app than Flywheel.
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.