Two of the city's largest taxi companies, Flywheel Taxi and Yellow Cab Co-Op, have agreed to have a dispute over the use of a taxi hailing app mediate. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Flywheel app owner takes heat for move to kick out cabbies

The owners of two of the largest and most influential taxi fleets in San Francisco, Flywheel Taxi and Yellow Cab Co-Op, have agreed to mediated talks to settle what some are calling an industry “war.”

Tensions between the companies rose when some 1,053 taxi medallion owners were told they would be kicked off the Flywheel platform last Friday. Most of those drivers hail from Yellow Cab and its co-owned fleets, Luxor Cab and Citywide, Flywheel Taxi’s largest rivals.

The Flywheel app operates much like Uber, but for traditional taxis. Hansu Kim owns both Flywheel Technologies, the app company, and Flywheel Taxi, a separate entity that operates its own fleet of cabs, formerly under the name DeSoto. Kim estimates about 15 percent of all taxi orders in San Francisco come through the Flywheel app, a significant source of income in the ailing cab industry.

At a public meeting of taxi professionals hosted by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency on Wednesday, a room of about 20 drivers and fleet owners took Kim to task over the move.

They called Kim “useless” and said his decision was “extortion” and “cutting off your nose to spite your face.” They said Kim had a “God complex” and accused him of “lying,” running a “dictatorship,” and “effectively putting a gun to everyone’s head.”

Few were happy. But they also wanted answers.

“I think the taxi industry is heading to a slow death unless we do something drastic,” Kim told the assembled taxi professionals.

To that end he said he is in talks now with a company with the name recognition, or the size, of “Google, Amazon and Apple,” to create a universal taxi app that will help save the cab industry.

“I am here to tell you, we are having that discussion right now,” Kim said.

But to enact that partnership, he said, he needed to rid the industry of various sins these unknown partners voiced concern over.

Kim alleged taxi drivers would accept a rider’s request on Flywheel, only to cancel it once someone hailed them on the street “with luggage,” implying a lucrative airport trip, and that taxi drivers would tell Flywheel customers “it’s a scam” and demand cash. Kim also alleged some taxi companies misstated the number of cabs in their fleet when filling out insurance forms in order to seek lower premiums, and would not provide insurance documentation to Flywheel to prove otherwise.

“The fact is, overall, the level of service in the taxi industry is extremely poor,” Kim said.

During the meeting, Yellow Cab, Luxor and Citywide owner Chris Sweis clashed over whether or not Yellow Cab should display Flywheel signage, which Kim said was necessary so people who hailed cabs on the street would know they could still pay with their Flywheel app. Eventually, after a lengthy back and forth, Sweis and Kim agreed to a discussion mediated by SFMTA Taxi Services Enforcement & Legal Affairs Manager Philip Cranna, who oversaw the meeting.

While Sweis and Kim could not predict the future, Sweis was optimistic.

It’ll be “kumbaya,” he said.

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