I used to think nothing was more awkward than pulling up to someone standing on the curb with their arm in the air, only to realize they aren’t actually looking for a taxi, just waving down their Uber/Lyft driver.
The humiliation of feeling wanted one second and then rejected the next seemed to be the epitome of embarrassment.
That is, until I tried casual carpool and discovered a whole new spectrum of dejection.
Casual carpool works like this: passengers who need rides into The City wait at designated spots next to freeway ramps until drivers who need riders to access the carpool lane on the bridge stop to pick them up.
Even though I’ve known about casual carpool for a while, it never occurred to me to use the service until last week. I was running super late, trying to get out the door and into The City. It was almost 9 a.m. and I was looking at spending over an hour crossing the bridge. Most of the backup, as usual, was at the toll plaza.
Faced with such grim prospects, I suddenly remembered casual carpool and practically congratulated myself.
I jumped in my cab and rolled up to the spot where I’ve seen khaki-clad worker bees standing next to a sign indicating that it’s a casual carpool pick up location.
Now, if your casual Uber/Lyft user would regard a taxi driver confused by hand signals previously unique to their trade with such derision, your casual carpooler seems to perceive the possibility of a free ride in a taxi as an abrasive, inappropriate attempt to proposition a bunch of hapless freeloaders.
When I arrive at Claremont and Hudson, six people are standing on the curb. They all take three steps back as I pull up. I already have my window down, figuring I’ll need to explain myself but don’t have a spiel ready. So I just awkwardly blurt out, “Car pool? Going to The City?”
A woman steps forward and asks, “Are you going to charge us?”
“Of course not!” I say with a friendly chuckle. “I want to use the carpool lane.” I don’t see the point in mentioning the fact that, as a San Francisco cab driver, it would be illegal for me to pick up outside The City.
“Okay.” She reaches for the door handle.
Inspired by her bravery, two girls quickly climb in back. Before joining them, the first woman turns to a guy in line.
“I didn’t mean to cut in front of you,” she says.
“That’s okay,” he says, still in a state of retreat. “I’ll wait.”
Whatever. I have my three riders and we’re city-bound, with full access to the carpool lane via West Grand.
Next stop, awkward conversation…
“I can’t remember the last time I was in a cab,” the woman in front tells me. “I usually take Lyft. And I always sit in front.”
“It must be hard for you guys, dealing with Uber and Lyft.”
“What do you mean, all the traffic the drivers create? Or the general horribleness of the companies, their rampant greed, exploitation and unwillingness to accept responsibility for the negative impact they have on society while pushing back the rights of workers 100 years, as if the entire labor movement of the 20th century never happened?” I laugh.
She doesn’t see the humor though. “No, I mean how they take away business from taxis.”
“Oh, that. There’s definitely a specific demographic that will always choose to support the corporate system, but plenty of San Franciscans and visitors still use taxis.”
When people ask me about the business, I never admit that Uber and Lyft are masking us suffer. If I could sound convincing and say taxis were flourishing, I would. But I’m not that good of an actor.
I just don’t want their pity.
Of course doing casual carpool kind of feels like I’m begging them to ride in my taxi. Which is a struggle, even when it’s free.
Once we’re in The City, I offer to drop them closer to their destinations, rather than just at the freeway exit. It requires some convincing but I take two of them to Second and Howard. Then go about my day. As casually as possible.
Kelly Dessaint is a San Francisco taxi driver. He is a guest opinion columnist and his point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner. His zine “Behind the Wheel” is available at bookstores throughout The City. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.idrivesf.com.