Dispatch system would help solve S.F. cab hassles

As most people who have tried it know: Catching a cab in San Francisco is not simple. There is no centralized dispatch service and far too few taxi stands, and wildly waving one’s arm for taxis on the street is hardly useful — although often good exercise.

So while several individual cab companies have carved out solid dispatch systems, many people have turned to ridesharing or alternative cab systems in response to the frustrations of being a San Francisco taxicab passenger. These alternative systems use technology such as smartphone apps to show people where the nearest empty vehicle is and to connect them with minimal hassle. When weary people want to get home or business people need to get to appointments on time, it is obvious why more and more bypass cabs.

But a new proposal from The City would help make the cab industry more convenient for passengers, enabling it to better compete with these taxi alternatives. Under that proposal, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which oversees The City’s taxicab industry, would engage a contractor to build an all-electronic system allowing passengers to view the location of nearby cabs and request one using devices such as smartphones.

This idea holds promise. Several smartphone applications currently allow people to hail a cab. But participation among cabs in providing GPS information to make such networks function is voluntary and thus fractured, meaning there is no one-stop shop for passengers. The City’s proposal would require all 1,700 San Francisco cabs to transmit their GPS information, enabling the creation of a centralized dispatch operation based on current technology instead of one based on a telephone system. The program would make San Francisco’s application the sole service that potential riders would need to employ to request any cab.

Yet this idea also is fraught with perils. Mandating anything in the taxicab industry can be an uphill battle. After all, technically every cab in San Francisco is mandated to accept credit cards as a form of payment, but any regular passenger knows that many drivers use a variety of excuses to shirk this rule. Also, the bureaucracy that governs formal taxi companies may create roadblocks that were not in place for the new application-based ride-sharing services.

Nonetheless, a centralized taxicab dispatching application could be a boon to San Franciscans and people visiting this city.

No one would need to keep track of which companies provide prompt dispatching services and which ones do not. They would simply be able to spot available cabs near them and request a ride. Taxicabs should play a role in San Francisco’s quest for a smarter transportation network, and this proposal could drive the cab system toward more efficient operations.

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