It’s all about the radio…
Back in the day, Veterans Cab was the premier radio company in San Francisco. Veterans drivers would pass up hundreds of street flags on their way to pick up one radio call. They had accounts throughout the Financial as well as most top-rated restaurants and bars across The City. If you wanted a cab to actually show up, you didn’t call Yellow. You called Veterans.
That’s all history now, though, of course. Over time, Veterans became Arrow Checker when National bought Veterans, then Arrow went under and the last of the Veterans accounts were either squandered or lost to Uber.
What little radio business National was able to hold onto had all but dissipated by the time the new owner decided to implement a Flywheel branded, app-based dispatch system.
When the two-way radios disappeared from all the National/Veterans cabs one day, hardly anyone noticed.
Ever since the idea of transitioning to soft meters was first suggested, I vehemently opposed it. I just want to drive a cab, I repeatedly told the manager at National, equipped with a traditional taximeter. Why fix what isn’t broken? Besides, the countless problems I’d had with the Flywheel phone vastly outnumbered my one incident with the taximeter.
Technology is wonderful, sure. When it works.
Without a radio, you end up just working hotel lines and prowling the streets for random fares, hoping for the occasional Flywheel request. As long as there aren’t any server issues, that is. This strategy can lead to some very boring, unprofitable shifts.
Even though I rarely play the airport, the SFMTA’s new policy determining which cabs get preferential treatment at SFO eliminates another source of fares.
So what’s a cab driver who just wants to serve the people of San Francisco supposed to do?
After taking his medallion to Yellow, Colin described an experience that hearkened back to the old days.
“I get so many radio calls,” he told me. “And my passengers are friendly and appreciative. It’s great. I feel like a cab driver again.”
Last month, hoping for a similar outcome, I wandered down Upton Alley to the Luxor cab yard, where Yellow has been operating out of since losing their spot on Mississippi Street.
“Are you looking for lost and found?” asks the guy behind the plexiglass window.
“No, I wanna drive a cab,” I say.
“You have an a-card?”
“Yeah, I’ve been driving taxi for four years,” I tell him. “At National.”
He points at the door to my left and says, “Go see Fred.”
Inside the office, I repeat my request to the three gentlemen sitting behind desks, who seem to regard me with disbelief.
After a long pause, one of them asks, “Aren’t you the guy who writes for the Examiner?”
“You want to drive for Yellow?”
Once all the paperwork is completed and I’ve initialed, signed and dated countless documents, they send me to the Citiwide office to attend a detailed orientation on how to use the Yellow equipment in the cab.
Driving for Yellow is no joke. Even with the tutorial, it’s been a major challenge figuring out how to work the radio, how to use the two-way to communicate with dispatch, how to run paratransit cards and how to turn in the cab at the end of my shift.
It’s been three weeks and I still feel like a melon farmer who’s fallen off the back of a turnip truck. Despite the hardships, though, I’m confident my decision is worth the struggle.
When I first started driving a taxi, the most appealing aspect of the job was the opportunity to drive all of San Francisco, not just the app-using population I’d encountered with Uber and Lyft.
In the beginning, it seemed like a cross section of The City would move through the backseat of my taxi each shift. But over time, as radio business dwindled, so did the diversity.
Now that I’m driving for Yellow and getting more radio calls in a day than I had during a month at National, I feel like a real cab driver again, fulfilling the goal I’ve been pursuing all along: to drive San Francisco.
Kelly Dessaint is a San Francisco taxi driver. His zine “Behind the Wheel” is available at bookstores throughout The City. He is a guest columnist. Write to Kelly at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.idrivesf.com