Strategies for catching a cab in San Francisco

If it’s raining, the weekend — let alone New Year’s — or even just rush hour, finding a cab in San Francisco can be harder than tracking down Jimmy Hoffa’s final resting place.

While a little luck never hurts, having a focused strategy for finding a cab can make the difference between standing in the rain getting soaked and arriving on time to your destination of choice. The San Francisco Examiner reached out to experts in the industry to get their advice on the best way to haul in a ride.

First and foremost, passengers should know the traffic patterns of The City, according to Ed Healy, a longtime taxi driver. Cabbies are often heading toward downtown destinations, so if passengers are looking to be picked up, they should hang out on arteries that lead that way. Eastbound streets such as Bush and Post are probably going to bear more fruit than opposite-heading streets like Sutter and Pine, Healy said.

For residents out in the harder-to-reach neighborhoods, such as the Sunset district, 19th Avenue and Lincoln Avenue are usually cab goldmines, since drivers make their return trips on those thoroughfares.

If all else fails, sidling up to a hotel can pay dividends. Peter Ng, a doorman at The Westin St. Francis in Union Square, said there is always a long list of cabs queuing up outside his establishment, waiting for fares.

Having the latest technology can also be a lifesaver for stranded passengers. Smartphone apps such as Taxi Magic and Cabulous allow patrons to track, book and pay for nearby cabs. According to John Lazar, president of Luxor Cab, which has an exclusive arrangement with Taxi Magic, his company makes 3,000 to 4,000 pickups a week through requests from the application.

If passengers do not have a smartphone, calling up companies the old-fashioned way doesn’t hurt, as long as it’s done in a timely manner. Trying to make a reservation at 7 p.m. on a rainy Friday night probably isn’t going to yield the best results.

“Our recommendation is to plan early, and call plenty in advance if you want to get a cab during peak times,” said Joe D’Alessandro, president of the San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau. “Otherwise, you’re going to be in for a wait.”

Waiting for a cab to arrive may be incredibly frustrating, but veteran driver Healy advised against bolting from a scene without warning a taxi company first.

“If you really peeve off a cab driver, they’ll remember,” Healy said. “Cab companies aren’t afraid to blacklist a phone number.”


Peak-time medallion plan pitched

Relief may be in sight for cab patrons sick of long waits to grab a ride during busy times such as Friday and Saturday nights or New Year’s Eve.

A plan has been devised to issue additional peak-time medallions, a move that would put more taxis on the streets during busy times of the week, according to the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

Under the preliminary proposal, select cab companies would be issued peak-time medallions under terms lasting three to five years.

Because weather can play a factor in the industry’s busy times, the peak-time medallions would be available on an hourly basis and just for certain days of the week, according to a memo from Christiane Hayashi, the SFMTA’s deputy director of taxi services.

Also, the extra medallions would only go to those companies that have advanced infrastructures, such as computerized dispatch services. Taxi medallions act as permits to operate cabs and owners can lease them out to drivers.

The number of additional taxis that would be allowed to operate has yet to be decided — the agency is awaiting a controller’s report before making any decisions — SFMTA spokesman Paul Rose said.

Qualified drivers and operators can buy taxi medallions for $250,000, but Hayashi’s memo said the limited peak-time medallions would cost less.

Mark Gruberg, a spokesman for the United Taxicab Workers union, said the SFMTA’s proposal has merit, but he took issue with the intent to offer peak-time medallions directly to cab companies instead of drivers. And he questioned how hourly time limits would be enforced.

Malcolm Heinicke, an SFMTA director, said the agency’s plan addresses The City’s taxi shortage.

“It’s almost beyond dispute that there is a dearth of cabs during peak times,” said Heinicke, who formerly sat on the now-defunct Taxicab Commission. “This plan meets that need without jeopardizing the living of everyday drivers.”

— Will Reisman

All hail the cab tips

A few simple steps can increase your chances of nabbing a coveted ride in a San Francisco taxi:

  • Know traffic patterns. Streets that lead to downtown destinations are usually a boon for passengers.
  • Get on the smartphone train. Applications such as Taxi Magic and Cabulous can help you track and book nearby cabs.
  • Find a hotel. Cabbies are always lining up outside looking for fares.
  • Call early. Expecting a dispatcher to pick up the phone on a weekend night is downright delusional.

On the streets

San Francisco’s taxicab industry at a glance:

7,000 Registered cab drivers

34 Taxi companies

1,500 Current taxi medallions

26 Percent of respondents who said they wait longer than 30 minutes for a cab*

* 2006 poll

Sources: SFMTA, City Controller’s Office

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