Can taxis survive the COVID-19 pandemic?

It’s the end of the taxi industry as we’ve known it and, honestly, I don’t know what to feel anymore.

Welp, it’s the end of the taxi industry as we’ve known it and, honestly, I don’t know what to feel anymore. I haven’t driven a cab in two weeks. After the RSA conference, when normal business started to tank, there didn’t seem to be much of a point. Without the airport and tourists, the only way to make money in a cab is via luck. And I’m just not that lucky.

Since then, things have only gotten worse. With no end in sight to the downward spiral.

During my involuntary sabbatical, I’ve been talking to drivers who are still out on the streets. The situation is dire.

Wait times at SFO are anywhere from five to seven hours. Cabs are sitting in front of the Hyatt Regency and Marriott Marquis for two or more hours. Street flags are non-existent. And dispatch orders are few and far between.

And that was before the shelter in place order went into effect on Tuesday.

Now… who knows what to expect? Every day, things are different.

Even though taxis are still considered essential during the lockdown, demand wasn’t very high before everyone was put under house arrest, so how many people will actually need rides over the next few weeks if they’re not supposed to go outside?

For gate and gas drivers, it seems to be the end of the road. It’s just not worth the risk of going out and barely covering your expenses. But how do we make money in meantime?

Finding another job right now isn’t easy. There aren’t many possibilities besides grocery stores. With so much panic buying going on, Safeway and Trader Joe’s constantly need more workers.

Most medallion owners, though, don’t really have the option of giving up. Instead, they’re trying to come up with any kind of Hail Mary solution. From petitioning The City to municipalize taxis with hazard pay, to advertising sanitized cabs, to working for DoorDash and Caviar in between nonexistent taxi rides.

There are several advantages to doing delivery during the lockdown. It’s the final frontier of the service industry, now that bars are shuttered and restaurants are closed for table service. All anyone can do is order in.

Most orders net you $10 to $15. And they don’t go very far. One driver reported earning almost $300 in one day with DoorDash and Caviar, along with a couple Flywheel requests that added a whopping $30.

Doing delivery is tempting. You can use any type of vehicle, from a taxicab to a skateboard. Plus, traffic is minimal, parking is ample, and there are referral bonuses and incentives.

I can see doing delivery in a cab, but not paying a gate. That leaves my wife’s Jetta, which isn’t ideal either. While I wouldn’t have to vacuum the cheesie-poos and other random detritus from a 3-year-old out of the backseat, there are just too many risk factors. And it’s only a temporary solution.

How long will delivery remain viable once everyone from the service industry who lost work due to the coronavirus, from bartenders and servers to Uber/Lyft drivers and pedicab operators, realizes it’s the only gig left?

These are scary times for the working class. Nobody knows when or if things will become normal again. For taxi drivers, there’s a bigger question: once this pandemic is over, will there even be an industry left to come back to?

One driver predicted a post-COVID-19 world for taxi drivers as just medallion owners raging through the city like mad dogs searching for the few remaining fares.

In that world, I guess gate and gas drivers would still be bagging groceries at Safeway… or using their wife’s car to deliver food.

There might be a third option for me, though: I can continue using this time to write.

Much to my own disadvantage, I’ve never been very good at promoting my own work. But these are weird times, so here it goes…

Besides this column, I have published several books, including an autobiographical novel and a few collections of my zines, all of which are available through online booksellers, or direct from my blog, www.idrivesf.com.

Perhaps some of you might be interested in a little reading material during the lockdown. All proceeds go to a slightly noble cause: keeping me off the streets.

Kelly Dessaint is a San Francisco taxi driver. He is a veteran zine publisher and author of the novel “A Masque of Infamy.” His long-running zine “Behind the Wheel” was recently collected into an Omnibus. He blogs at www.idrivesf.com. His column appears every other week in the Thursday Examiner. He is a guest opinion columnist and his point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner.

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