Adding 200 cabs will aid stranded locals, tourists

After years of talking about the need for more taxicabs on the streets of San Francisco, there is finally progress in doing something about it.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which issues the permits to operate cabs in The City, approved a plan to roll out up to 200 more permits. The 13 percent increase in cabs on the streets — from 1,535 to as many as 1,735 — will be a boon for San Franciscans, people who work in The City and those who come here for business or vacations.

Most people in San Francisco can tell you stories about calling cabs that never show up or standing on the street, waving at cabs that drive by. Taxi companies and industry groups testified before the agency and bolstered the arguments. In particular, the San Francisco Travel Association and the Hotel Council said that the lack of cabs was one of the top complaints levied by tourists. The vice president of Taxi Magic, a dispatch service in 100 cities across the nation, said The City is one of the worst metro areas in the country for passengers to hail a cab.

Even more than the complaints of residents, the gripes of tourists should not be taken lightly. Tourism is one of the top industries in The City, and the revenue it brings for businesses is significant. If visitors — whether here for business or leisure — cannot get around, they cannot spend their money in neighborhoods across The City.

The plan is for the agency to start rolling out the new permits to cab companies at a price of $1,900 per permit over the next 30 days. To receive the additional operating permits, the companies will have to provide an adequate level of dispatch service.

Even all the additional cabs may not be enough for the demand. An attorney for Luxor and Yellow Cab told the agency’s board that an independent report for those companies showed that adding 700 more cabs to the streets still would not be sufficient. A separate report from the SFMTA that is due out in January may show that the need for cabs exceeds the 200 that will be rolling out. But this first step, taken as an immediate action, is a start.

Not surprisingly, cabdrivers oppose the additional operating permits. They say the additional cabs on the street will hit them in the pocketbook, since more taxis on the streets means fewer pickups for each driver. Many say they already drive around for hours without being able to pick up any passengers.

Real long-term improvement of cab service in San Francisco requires more than just more cabs on the street.

Other proposed fixes might include a centralized dispatch center that would dispatch every single cab in town from a single, memorable phone number. And customers would no doubt appreciate real-time data applications that would let them see the actual availability of cabs in their neighborhoods — and know for sure if the one they called 15 minutes ago is really going to arrive.

The addition of more cabs on the streets should be applauded, but not hailed as a fix. Real reform, including consideration of the complaints of drivers who say they barely earn enough money to survive, will take several more steps. Still, the new permits indicate the transportation agency is working toward fixing a system that has been broken for years.

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