Lights atop San Francisco taxi cabs may see colorful makeover

Figuring out if a cab is available has always been a bit of a guessing game for taxi patrons.

The cab’s rooftop light is supposed to be on if there is no fare inside, but nearly every passenger in The City has a story about being ignored by a lit-up taxi.

To address that issue, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which regulates cabs, is pondering a plan to introduce new rooftop lights to its taxis.

Under the agency’s proposal, cab lights would have a series of distinct hues — one color to indicate if a car is open, another color if the cab is unavailable, and one more color if the driver is in trouble and has pushed an alarm button. The specific color of each light is still being hashed out.

Currently, cab lights only turn off if the meter is running, which can lead to confusion, since the vehicle can look available at the end of a driver’s shift or during a cabbie’s lunch break. Under the proposed system, a driver would be able to manually operate the cab light, according to SFMTA spokesman Paul Rose.  

Rose said fixing the rooftop lights would have a number of benefits: passengers would be able to see more clearly if a cab is available, drivers would be safer because of the panic button and illegal taxi operations could be easily identifiable.

The SFMTA is researching potential vendors to develop and install the new cab light technology. It is also keeping a close eye on developments from New York City, which recently introduced a similar cab light plan.

Barry Korengold, a cab driver and member of the Taxi Advisory Council, which consults with the SFMTA on industry issues, said drivers have been pining for new lights for years.

“People get mad at us when we go by because they can’t tell if the light is off,” Korengold said at an SFMTA committee meeting where the topic was discussed.

“It’s embarrassing. We keep trying to tell them that it’s not our fault.”

Athan Rebelos, the general manager at the DeSoto cab company, said the new light setup is unnecessary.

“It’s overthinking this,” said Rebelos. “The real problem is that when people are flagging down cabs, the driver is not stopping. Adding more lights won’t do anything to ease the confusion.”


Going places

A color-coded system is being considered for The City’s taxis. 

– 1,500: Cabs in San Francisco

– 5,000: Cab drivers in San Francisco

– $3.50: Starting meter cost

– $2.75: Meter rate per mile

– 55 cents: Meter rate per one minute stuck in traffic

Source: SFMTA

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