Each day, from approximately 6:15 a.m. to 10:15 p.m., the AC Transit 29 roars past our apartment. As the bus rounds the corner, the driver revs the engine to get through the next intersection, since there’s rarely anyone waiting at the bus stop across the street.
The 29 runs from Oakland’s Lakeshore area north of Lake Merritt all the way to Emeryville. Even though the bus route links two major business districts, I rarely see anyone inside other than the driver. No matter the time of day, it’s always empty.
As a taxi driver on hiatus because of COVID, I can’t help but pay attention to public transportation. I’m also usually milling about in my front yard, trying to cultivate what’s left of my potted garden. Now that the landlord has completed his stranglehold on the property around this house and turned it into a biohazard zone, the only outdoor space left for my plants is a narrow strip of grass by our front door. As a result, I’ve become much more aware of street activity.
It seems like most people are avoiding the bus, if they have access to a car. I’ve read that BART and Muni numbers are majorly down too. All of which doesn’t bode well for taxi business.
Even though Uber and Lyft have seen an increased demand for rides, they’re struggling to convince drivers to give up over $500 a week of unemployment and get back behind the wheel. And who can blame them?
Of course, since Biden’s American Rescue Plan Act was first proposed in Congress, there have been numerous debates about the consequences of government handouts, how that $300 extra a week for unemployment will only dissuade people from returning to work and that businesses who can’t find workers will likely go under as a result. So now Biden has included a stipulation that people who turn down work can’t keep getting federal unemployment benefits.
In parts of the country where the minimum wage is $7.25, the decision to look for low-paying work or make twice as much on unemployment is a no-brainer. But in places like San Francisco or Oakland, Employment Development Department payments barely scratch the surface of financial obligations. The decision to go back to work or ride out the stimulus is more complicated than just laziness or deciding what’s more profitable.
Since the pandemic first began, I’ve based my decision whether to start driving a taxi again on three questions.
1. Do the people of San Francisco need my services? These days, I’m in The City at least every two weeks. To maintain our sanity, the wife and I take turns watching the child so the other can get out of the house for a few hours. While Irina tends to go out for dinner with other moms, I head across the bridge.
Whether driving around town or just hanging out with my friend Maya at the Memorial Court, with its clear view of traffic on Franklin and Van Ness, I see plenty of cabs cruising the streets. But hardly any flags. I’ve heard from active drivers that most taxi business these days comes from radio calls, but according to similar reports, it also seems like there are plenty of drivers to satisfy demand.
2. Next, I think about the safety of being in a confined space less than three feet away from a bunch of randos. That was my primary concern and what kept me home since the pandemic began. Despite getting my second dose of Moderna next week, it hardly seems like we’re going to reach herd immunity anytime soon.
3. At the end of the day, though, can you make any money driving a cab right now? The figures I’ve seen aren’t inspiring. Not enough to give up unemployment.
In my situation, like with many parents, there’s childcare to consider. My wife works remotely. Since very few schools and daycares are back to full operations, I can’t just leave Irina to deal with the kid mano a mano and her assignments at the same time. It’s hard enough as a tag team to contend with the constant chattering and wanton demands of a 4-year-old.
So, while it may sound like a vacation from the rigors of parenthood, I can’t just abandon my responsibilities to drive a taxi again. At least not yet. .. .even if that makes me a deadbeat on the dole.
Kelly Dessaint is a San Francisco taxi driver, currently on hiatus due to COVID restrictions. He is the author of the novel “A Masque of Infamy” and a zine series “Behind the Wheel,” collected into a paperback omnibus, available through book marketplaces or from his blog: idrivesf.com. His column appears every other week in the Examiner.