”San Francisco will always get the taxi service it deserves.”
When Austin Peterson made this statement several years ago, during one of the erstwhile barbecues at the National yard, I immediately wrote it down, like I did with most of the quips and comments uttered by the motley crew of veteran taxi drivers who used to hang around a smoldering Weber grill in the small hours after their shifts talking about the history of the taxi industry and San Francisco. More than any other comment I recorded back then, though, it was this one that regularly popped back into my mind over the years.
Maybe because I didn’t fully understand it at the time. Perhaps I still don’t. Was it meant as a threat? Or just the intoxicated ramblings of a disgruntled cab driver? Well, Austin isn’t like that. He still drives with a fury of enthusiasm and complete wonder with The City. He’s an advocate for the industry who honestly believes we can survive the onslaught of change. Both taxis and San Francisco.
No matter what happens, taxis will never go away. They may look different. But when you get into a car and pay the driver to take you to another destination, you’re in a taxicab. How you arranged that pickup, whether extending your hand on the curb or using an app on your phone, is irrelevant. You’re in a taxi. And the guy behind the wheel is driving for hire.
The concept goes back to ancient Egypt. It’s nothing new.
So why are we continuing to view Uber and Lyft as some kind of entity other than what they really are: taxi companies on crack? Through linguistic subterfuge, they’ve achieved the seemingly impossible task of running global and national taxi services without owning a single vehicle.
I’ve always joked that, unlike Uber and Lyft, driving a taxi is like dealing with Enterprise or Hertz. You lease a car with an insurance plan and then cruise around looking for fares.
To cab companies, drivers are the customers. Occasionally, they provide you with dispatch rides, but when it comes to making money on the streets, you’re essentially on your own. They provide the means, and that’s it.
From the beginning, Uber and Lyft diverged from this model by focusing not on the driver, but on the passengers instead. Their primary interest was improving the passengers’ experience.
In the process, conditions for the drivers got worse. By using their personal cars as taxicabs, they assumed more of the risk involved with the transaction. Through the rating system and repeated price cuts, they were treated as an expendable workforce.
This became obvious early on, when Uber and Lyft lowered the rates by almost half during the summer of 2014, as the two companies vied for market share.
Back then, I was driving for Uber and Lyft. I went from making $700 a weekend to around $300. With each announcement of new lowered rates, drivers quit in disgust. They went back to their old jobs or found new ones. I did the inconceivable and became a taxi driver. Started hanging around the yard after my shifts, talking with the old timers about The Job.
Before Uber and Lyft, the San Francisco taxi industry was a mess. Nobody involved with taxis would ever deny their responsibility for the rise of Uber and Lyft. They had a monopoly and exploited it.
Their comeuppance was devastating. But it also forced the industry to improve.
The tables have turned, though. Now, Uber and Lyft have the monopolies. And they have been more than happy to exploit it. With extreme gusto. So much so, the state tried to reel them by passing Assembly Bill 5 in September 2019, which declared gig economy workers employees.
This didn’t sit well with Uber and Lyft, et al.
Which brings us to Proposition 22.
Prop. 22 is an attempt to avoid comeuppance.
Since the employee designation is detrimental to their business models, Uber and Lyft, along with delivery services like DoorDash and Postmates, are shelling out over $200 million to convince Californians to vote yes on their ballot measure and let them keep their monopoly and continue exploiting workers.
Now, it’s up to the voters to decide what kind of taxi service they want next.
Kelly Dessaint, a San Francisco taxi driver and veteran zine publisher, is the author of the novel “A Masque of Infamy.” His long-running Behind the Wheel zine series is collected into a paperback “Omnibus,” available through all book marketplaces or from his blog, idrivesf.com. His column appears every other week in the Examiner. He is a guest opinion columnist and his point of view is not necessarily that of the Examiner.