When Google Maps suggests a route, I know that’s the one to avoid

I Drive SF: Practicing the lost art of getting around


She gets in the back of my taxi at the United terminal, wearing Beats headphones. A clear signal: do not disturb. Which is fine. After finding out her destination — the Proper hotel — I keep my mouth shut. I don’t feel like talking anyway. Until the freeway turns into a parking lot and I kind of need to explain why we’re taking an alternate route.

According to the electronic traffic sign right before the split, it’s 50 minutes to downtown.

Fortunately, I know a shortcut.

In the age of Google Maps, Waze, et al., there aren’t many secret ways to get around The City anymore. Almost everyone relies on GPS nowadays. I use it too, but only to find out which way not to go.

When Google Maps suggests a route, I know that’s the one to avoid, because if they’re telling me to go that way, they’re directing every other driver that way too.

It’s a no-brainer, really. If you want to beat traffic, you have to carve out your own trajectory.

As a taxi driver, though, deviating from standard courses can make some passengers nervous. Those who think cab drivers want to run up the meter. But getting stuck in traffic is the worst way to make money. Whether you’re traveling one mile-per-hour or 100 miles-per-hour, it costs the same. To maximize profit, you need to get people in and out of your cab as fast as possible.

To prevent misunderstandings, before breaking away from the herd, I try and explain to people that we’re going to travel along the freeway on surface streets. And that the route isn’t any longer. Sometimes, even cheaper.

While I’ve had fares insist on taking the most congested routes because that’s what their phones tell them, most agree to the change in direction.

The only hitch is when they’re talking on their phones. Or, in this case, wearing headphones.

Since it’s almost dark and my preferred route is through a poorly lit residential neighborhood, I don’t want to freak her out.

As we near the exit, I glance in the rearview and try to get her attention. But all I see is the glow from the screen of her phone illuminating her face.

My decision pays off. The off-ramp is pretty much clear. I get through the intersection without stopping. I check the rearview again to see if she’s noticed the change in terrain. She continues to stare at her phone.

Oh well. If she ever looks up and inquires about our whereabouts, I’ll explain things to her then.

More than anything, telling passengers about shortcuts lets them know you’re trying to save them time. And maybe, at the end of the ride, they’ll show their appreciation with a big tip.

Of course, a swift trip doesn’t always lead to financial gratitude. One night I was taking a young couple from SFO to the W and, with a few crafty lane changes, made incredible time. Along the way, I heard them talking about running late for some event. Despite getting them to their hotel with 15 minutes to spare, they stiffed me on the tip.

Knowing that could always happen again, I charge into the growing darkness, accelerate over hills, turn left, then right, then left again, until the only challenge that remains is the most formidable: South of Market.

I manage to evade the hordes of confused Uber/Lyft drivers and aggressive commuters and get lucky with a few lights on Seventh. A few minutes later, I pull up to the hotel and hit the overhead.

She removes the headphones.

I stop the meter and say, “You may not realize it, but that shortcut I took just saved us a bunch of time.”

“Oh, I do,” she tells me, digging through her purse for a credit card. “I checked traffic before we left the airport. I need to meet someone and wasn’t sure how I was going to pull it off. So I’m really grateful.” She hands me her card and says, “Make it an even $60.”

After retrieving her luggage and getting back into my cab, I check Google Maps. Then head in a different direction.

Kelly Dessaint is a San Francisco taxi driver. His zine “Behind the Wheel” is available at bookstores throughout The City. Write to him at piltdownlad@gmail.com or visit 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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