On Monday, a delegation from the U.S. Conference of Mayors went on a field trip to several tech companies in The City, most notably, Uber, who was also a major sponsor of the conference. In response, the San Francisco Taxi Workers Alliance staged a picket line in front of Uber headquarters and urged the mayors to steer clear of the unscrupulous company.
I went down to the demonstration to show my support because I believe numbers matter in a protest, and it was important for these visiting leaders to know things aren’t all peaches and cream in Baghdad by the Bay.
I walked up Market from the Civic Center BART station. As I crossed 10th Street, I saw a large group of cab drivers, marching and holding up signs, surrounded by an even larger police presence. There were cops on motorcycles, cops on dirt bikes and cops guarding metal barricades set up along the perimeter. They even shut down 11th Street. For a while, taxicabs drove by, blowing their horns, but then police redirected traffic into the center lane.
When the mayors and their aides arrived on the same luxury buses that shuttle tech workers between The City and the campuses in Silicon Valley, they were quickly ushered inside the building as we waved our signs and shouted. Some glanced in our direction. A few looked amused or bewildered, but most didn’t seem to care about a bunch of rabble-rousing cab drivers.
Outside, several reporters eagerly documented our frustrations with Uber; how they’re allowed to skirt regulations while we must follow the rules.
One reporter brought up the oft-repeated statement from Uber that they’re providing economic opportunities for drivers and that consumers find their service cheaper, more efficient and much more pleasant than taxis. So why, he asked, don’t cab drivers just accept the future of transportation and embrace Uber?
Besides the obvious reasons that Uber’s business model is predatory, exploitative, unsustainable for drivers and rife with potentially catastrophic risks, there are cab drivers who actually enjoy serving the public. Without taxis, how will the elderly, the disabled and the poor get around? Uber only satisfies the needs of one demographic.
And what about tourists?
The day retirees from Missouri who’ve worked their entire lives to afford vacations in places like California are required to buy smartphones and download an app before they leave SFO to get into The City is the day we can safely say San Francisco has not just lost its soul, it’s lost every trace of humanity it had left. At that point, we might as well just stop pretending and hand the keys to City Hall over to Travis Kalanik and his ilk.
What about those who don’t want to be tracked by a private company? Uber just amended their terms of service to acknowledge they’ve been tracking users’ movements regardless of whether they’re in a car or not. By just having the app on your phone, you give Uber the right to monitor and catalogue your day-to-day activities.
As Joe Strummer wrote, “Greed … it ain’t going anywhere!”
It’s easy to write off cab drivers as Luddites resisting technology that renders our profession obsolete, but we have smartphones. We use Flywheel, which works the same as Uber. Yellow has their own app (of course they do … they’re Yellow). And many drivers rely on Square to process credit cards.
There’s more at stake here than just apps. When you hang around cab drivers long enough, you hear a variety of predictions about the future of the taxi industry. Many old-timers prophesize nothing short of imminent demise. Some foresee medallion holders as owner/operators independent of color schemes. Others imagine taxicabs will become relics of the past, curiosities preserved like the cable cars or the streetcars that run down The Embarcadero and Market Street.
When they start contemplating doomsday scenarios, I can’t help but think of the telephone sanitizers of Golgafrincham in Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker’s Guide. How they were deemed unnecessary and shipped off to another planet. And once they were gone, the Golgafrinchams were wiped out by a disease contracted from a dirty telephone.
Kelly Dessaint is a former Uber and Lyft driver turned taxi driver. In his real life, he’s the publisher of the personal narrative zine Piltdownlad.