A fare in the backseat is worth two on the street


“Flywheel rules!” Mark exclaims as he climbs into the backseat of my cab outside Harrington’s during a torrential downpour. “You guys always get here so fast!”

After telling me how much he loves Flywheel, he asks if he can vape and continues expressing his preference for taxis.

“I hate Uber. I swear, I haven’t used them in over a year.”

His boozy, now stoned, sentiments echo those of many other Flywheel passengers who’ve come back to taxis. I don’t chime in though. Even if I want to participate in his Uber-bashing, he’s pontificating a mile a minute.

“I will say this … before Uber, you couldn’t get a cab in San Francisco. Never! Ever!”

Ever? I wonder if he thinks cab drivers in the past were just rolling around The City empty for the sheer delight of taunting potential passengers.

“And calling dispatch was useless.”

When passengers tell me they were never able to order a cab, I usually ask which company they’d call. Almost always it was Yellow. Or Luxor. Or DeSoto. The three cab companies with the largest fleets. But what about the smaller companies? National’s motto is “We answer the phone!” Veterans and Arrow specialized in radio calls. They had dispatchers who were considered legends on the radio, like Ron Tse, who called out rides in a velvet drawl, remembered the locations and cab numbers of all the drivers who checked in and then dished out the orders, saving a few choice ones for the drivers he favored.

“I remember calling to arrange a taxi to take me to the airport the night before my flight and then …”

If you stand around cab yards long enough, you hear some interesting things … Like how Yellow intentionally didn’t service calls in an attempt to force City Hall to release more medallions. Since cab companies only make money by leasing cars to drivers, a limit on the number of medallions curbs the amount of profit they can make.

“And you weren’t even able to hail a cab on the street. They’d just drive right past you.”

I don’t mention the girl standing on Fremont whom I passed on my way to pick him up. Soaked in the rain, she was feverishly trying to hail a cab. I forgot to turn my top light off when the Flywheel order came in so she looked dismayed that I didn’t stop. An Uber driver even pointed her out to me, as if I didn’t notice she obviously needed a ride.

What could I do? I was on a Flywheel call. I had to pick up Mark. If I cancel a ride, Flywheel penalizes me. And Mark would no doubt think I’m an asshole and perhaps end his streak of not using Uber. But the girl stuck in the rain probably thought I was an asshole, as well as anyone else who saw me pass up a very desperate fare. “You see, this is why we need Uber!” they might conclude.

Because the only way to turn off the top light is to start the taximeter, I’m prone to forget this step. It’s counterintuitive.

One time, after a car knocked the side mirror off my cab, I was heading back to the yard when a guy tried to flag me down at Harrison and Sixth. I told him I’d just been sideswiped, but he called me a motherfucker anyway and whipped out his phone.

While we all know, pre-Uber, the taxi industry wasn’t able to adequately handle demand during peak times, there are myriad reasons why a cab driver might not pick up a fare. Besides heading to a radio call or on their way to pick up a personal, they might be at the end of their shift and returning to the yard before they get fined for being late. Or perhaps the driver is trying to get something to eat, or in desperate need of a bathroom.

After an earful of exaggerated, apocalyptic taxi scenarios, I drop Mark off in front of his Noe Valley apartment. I enter the fare amount into the Flywheel app and see that his tip percentage is set at 10. So once Flywheel takes their cut, I’m out 3.2 percent.

Whatever. Arguing about tiny percentages is petty, but as I head back downtown, I wonder where that drenched girl was going and how appreciative she would’ve been to get out of the rain. Maybe even more than 10 percent.

Kelly Dessaint is a San Francisco taxi driver. Write to him at piltdownlad@gmail.com and @piltdownlad.

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