Share the taxi riders’ gas pains

Any reasonably experienced traveler could tell you San Francisco taxi service is second-rate in comparison with other U.S. cities. Obtaining a taxicab here often is slow and inconvenient, although San Francisco cab fares rank with Las Vegas as the nation’s costliest.

Taxi passengers currently pay $3.10 to start a ride, trailing Vegas by only 20 cents. However, The City’s $2.25 per mile is America’s highest, and our 45 cents per minute waiting fee is nearly one-third more than Las Vegas. The average cost of a San Francisco taxi ride is $16.15.

Despite being hit with a fare increase just two years ago, The City’s taxi riders might face a $1 per passenger fee in September to offset skyrocketing gasoline costs. The average Bay Area cost for one gallon of gas is $4.48, and the San Francisco Taxicab Commission is looking at imposing that $1 surcharge on rides of any distance.

Chicago, Houston, Miami and Cleveland have already enacted taxi fuel $1 fees. The New York cabdrivers union just submitted an official request for a $1 surcharge. But despite widening national acceptance of this comparatively simple method for passing along runaway gas prices, San Francisco might well find a fairer approach for taxi fares.

We recognize The City’s cabdrivers are caught between the conflicting pressures of ever-rising costs and unyielding bureaucratic restrictions. The cabbies bear little responsibility for the unsatisfying quality of San Francisco taxi services.

Taxi drivers in The City take home an average of $109.47 after a long, grinding shift, according to a city controller’s report from January. It is understandable that drivers have been bombarding the Taxicab Commission for relief from soaring gas costs, in order to survive the Bay Area’s nation-high cost of living.

But San Francisco taxi riders already pay plenty for service that is less than outstanding. Forcing passengers to bear the brunt of fuel cost increases is guaranteed by market economics to result in some loss of business, which cannot be good for cabbies.

One piece of the equation that should be inspected more closely is the “gate fees” charged by taxi companies to every driver taking a cab out of the garage. These fees now average $98.50 per shift and cover vehicle rental, repairs and maintenance — but not fuel.

The city controller’s next taxi-industry report is due in August, analyzing cabdriver incomes and fare increases. The Examiner would like this report to show whether a rollback of gate fees could realistically replace the need for a per-passenger fuel surcharge.

If gate fees became less burdensome for taxi drivers, it is not far-fetched to believe that United Taxicab Workers union members might reduce their fierce resistance to approving more cabs on the street — ultimately producing better service, additional jobs and higher company revenue.

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