90 days later, plan to play favorites with SFO taxis finds some success

In a report released Friday, San Francisco regulators said a move to give some struggling taxi drivers priority at San Francisco International Airport has boosted their revenue and rides, but hasn’t increased the supply of cabs on city streets as hoped.

Under the plan, taxi drivers who paid $250,000 for permits called medallions got to jump ahead in the line to pick up airport passengers, a lucrative pickup spot.

Complementary efforts to entice more taxi drivers to pick up riders who use wheelchairs are also showing promise, the report shows.

“We’re seeing really positive trends,” said Kate Toran, director of taxi and accessible services at the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which has been leading the effort.

But the report also shows that The City failed in its effort to encourage some taxi drivers – who hold older permits that were given away for free in the last half-century — to drive more within San Francisco itself.

“Our policy goal was to reverse an existing trend” of fewer and fewer taxis available in The City, Toran said. “It’s something that will take a lot of work to turn around.”

The initial plan proposed in October last year would have barred nearly two-thirds of taxi drivers barred from picking up at SFO. Many critics in the industry saw the proposal as an effort to address a lawsuit from the San Francisco Federal Credit Union, which is seeking damages from SFMTA for “allowing” the rise of Uber and Lyft to tank the local taxi industry, which in turn led many taxi drivers who took out loans to lease medallions to default.

It was those 560 paid medallion holders who were expected to benefit from the taxi plan, which was scaled back by December to simply give them priority.

Now, a report released Friday shows those paid medallion holders are making more money.

Revenue for purchased medallion holders rose in February, March and April this year, compared to the same time last year, by roughly 41 percent, according to SFMTA. Those same drivers saw pickups jump by more than 136 percent. In February 2018 purchased medallion holders picked up 21,000 passengers from SFO, but in February this year they picked up 56,000. There’s a similar rise in March and April.

That’s also led to a 5 percent reduction in taxi-created traffic congestion — as anyone who has driven at SFO may have experienced, some of that congestion is caused by vehicles looping around to the arrivals area again and again. That practice has lessened as far as taxis are concerned, according to SFMTA data.

But there are also losers in this scenario, said Cris Sweis, owner of Yellow Cab and Luxor Cab in San Francisco.

“Yeah they achieved their goals, but I think their goals are misguided,” he told the San Francisco Examiner.

Instead of helping taxi drivers due to pressure from the credit union lawsuit, he said, SFMTA should help level the playing field between taxis and ride-hails, who have far fewer regulations to contend with. That’s proven difficult, however, as Uber and Lyft are regulated by the state, whereas taxis are regulated by cities in California.

And although when their new SFO priority program launched, Toran and others at SFMTA argued it could lead to more cabbies driving in San Francisco itself, that hope hasn’t come to fruition. SFMTA data shows taxi trips in San Francisco proper dropped by about 16 percent from the same time last year, from February to April.

Toran hopes a new digital queue tool, which will allow cabbies to wait in line “digitally” for pickups at SFO while picking up fares in San Francisco instead of waiting in an SFO lot will help. That program is expected to launch in 2020, she said.

In the meantime, some cabbies are happy with Toran and SFMTA’s plan.

One taxi driver wrote an email to SFMTA just two weeks ago praising the results, despite having previously opposed it.

“I at first resisted your plan to create the new (priority) SFO system but I have been completely converted,” he wrote. “I was at the crossroads of defaulting on my SF (Federal Credit Union) loan but now with the changes you made my financial head is just above water and (I) am able to continue as a proud SF cab driver.”

joe@sfexaminer.com

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