Where are the cabs?

He ignores your phone calls, makes you wait and sometimes stands you up on a Saturday night. He’s your San Francisco taxi driver, and you just can’t call it quits.

While it’s improved throughout the years, the age-old relationship problem remains. You need him more than he needs you — especially if you live in a far-flung neighborhood or call during peak times.

From a new and controversial idea to pay extra for guaranteed service to a renewed interest in a citywide dispatch system, taxi industry players and passengers alike are debating possible solutions.

The elusiveness of cabs along The City’s edges is a problem acknowledged by San Francisco Taxicab CommissionExecutive Director Jordanna Thigpen.

“There’s no question the complaints and statistics have shown it’s the Sunset and other residential areas that aren’t being served,” she said, noting that the problem has caused outcry from neighborhood associations and a proliferation of gypsy cabs in the areas.

Supply and demand is only part of the equation. What many riders don’t know, longtime cabdriver Brad Newsham said, is that their call to dispatch isn’t an order, merely a request.

Dispatchers alert all available company taxis of your location, but if you’re in the Outer Richmond at 6 p.m., you may be waiting a long time. That’s because during peak times, drivers congregate where the business lies.

While many cab companies reward customer loyalty by repeatedly dispatching your request, whether or not you get picked up doesn’t make a difference to their bottom line. Their profits come entirely from renting cabs to drivers, who are independent contractors, Newsham said.

“If a cabdriver was trying to make a living strictly by serving the Richmond and Sunset, they’d go broke. I’ve tried it,” said Newsham, who has been driving for 23 years and now works for Green Cab.

Putting more cabs on the street, favored by many cab company owners and riders, is opposed by drivers, who spend off-peak hours scrounging for scarce fares. Still, the number of cabs in The City has nearly doubled in the past decade. There are 1,432 taxis on the streets — in six months, that number will be 1,500.

An idea to increase permits during high-demand times only is being considered by a working group within the Taxicab Commission, which will issue a full report in early September, Thigpen said.

Meanwhile, a new idea to guarantee service to those who pay a “premium fee” of up to $5 per ride is inciting fierce debate among Taxicab Commission members.

Another idea floated throughout the years, a consolidated dispatch system that would alert all of the cabs in The City to every call, has generated interest but failed to gain political traction due to opposition from cab-company owners, who have built clientele and invested money in their own dispatch services.

A plan to merge oversight of The City’s taxicab industry within the Municipal Transportation Agency, the agency responsible for Muni, may breathe new life into the old idea of consolidated dispatch, Thigpen said.

Proponents of consolidated dispatch say it could be designed so that calls would roll over to the system only if they couldn’t be fulfilled by private companies.

“A good-spirited politician and some good-spirited cab-company people should be able to create something,” Newsham said. “It’s not rocket science. It’s the cab industry.”


Pay-for-dispatch idea drives concerns

A controversial idea in which passengers would pay extra for a cab to show up on time is being discussed in San Francisco Taxicab Commission working groups.

Called a “surcharge dispatch program,” customers would call cab companies, give their credit card numbers and pay a premium fee of several dollars or more for guaranteed service during peak times.

“The argument against it is there will be this stratified system where wealthy people will be able to afford better service,” commission Executive Director Jordanna Thigpen said.

While some proponents of the idea are in favor of the market determining the price, Thigpen said there would have to be a cap of $5 enforced by local government.

“From my perspective, we’d have to monitor it so the public is protected,” she said.

Jim Gillespie, assistant manager at Yellow Cab, said the premium-fee service works well in Singapore. It also is used in Australian cities.

“It’s been discussed that people would be willing to say, ‘I live in Forest Hill. I need to get to the opera and I’ll pay extra,’” Gillespie said. “Maybe that would motivate the drivers to go to one of the outer areas at a peak time.”

Still, finding the right balance of what to charge would be difficult.

“It couldn’t be excessive, but I don’t think drivers would do it for $1,” Gillespie said.

Tamara Barak Aparton

By the numbers

1,432: Taxis in San Francisco

40,000 to 50,000: Taxi trips per day

$16.15: Average cross-city fare

$35.50: Average fare to SFO

Source: S.F. Taxicab Commission

A 50-50 on taxi calls

A 2007 taxicab report by The City looked at dispatch rates and wait times.

50%: Dispatch attempts that result in a cab arriving

50%: Taxis dispatched that are no-shows

65%: No-shows from 6 to 10 p.m.

3 minutes: Average phone time on hold with dispatcher

16 minutes: Average wait for a cab from time contact is initiated

8 minutes: Average time for a successful flag down, citywide

3 minutes: Average wait time for a cab at a hotel

Source: S.F. Taxi Commission’s 2007 Public Convenience and Necessity Report, Dispatch Survey, Flag Down Survey

More money: San Francisco officials are considering following in the footsteps of other major cities by adding a fuel surcharge to The City’s already-high taxicab fares to offset the high cost of fuel. While Chicago, Houston and Miami’s fees add $1 to the fare, San Francisco officials say they may seek a surcharge of $1 per person per ride.

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