|Photo by John Han|
Apparently Uber, formerly called UberCab, is ramping it up, cooperating with regulators, and doing fine. Well good for them.
But if I may indulge in the opportunity, both Uber and Cabulous are indications to those of us in the cab business that San Francisco's taxi industry needs to start evolving.
One of the ways it can do this is through the controversial 'centralized dispatching system'. It is a long held idea that passengers phoning in for service deserve the option of calling their favorite cab company, or, if not, may choose to call a central dispatch number that would dispatch the closest available cab, regardless of what company it is, since all meter rates are the same. Many drivers want this, local politicians have said they wanted it, policy studies have recommended it, and the public seems to want it enough that that some of the more entrepreneurial ones are trying to invent their own versions of one, i.e., Cabulous, Uber.
The ones who seem most adamantly opposed to the idea are the also the ones who control almost all of the radio dispatch services in the City... the cab companies.
As it would seem, the cab companies' clench to maintain control over the industry is what prevents the industry from becoming what it could and should be.
If only the general public understood by and large how San Francisco's taxi industry works, maybe then they would conscientiously support centralized dispatching. They already do in a way, by supporting Cabulous and Uber, they just don't really realize it.
They also generally don't know that when they get on the phone and order a taxi, though they may think they are calling a company that's in business to provide them with taxi service, they are actually calling a car rental company that handles their order as an informational referral service to taxi drivers.
Recently, at the last Taxi Advisory Council meeting, the Council Liaison Report proposed changing the definitions of the City's color schemes and dispatch services. Whereas the regulations used to define color schemes as,
"either the design or trade dress of a vehicle used as a taxi or ramp taxi that is distinct to the fleet of a color scheme business that provides taxi service..." (underline mine).
It now proposes to define them as,
"businesses that provides taxi-related services to affiliated drivers and medallion holders..." (underline mine).
Taxi related services?
It's almost official then. Taxicab companies are almost completely out of the business of providing taxicab services to the public and are very, very close to legitimately being only a "taxi related" service provider that caters to taxi drivers... not the public. For those of us in the industry, we know that this is strictly for tax purposes and cost cutting measures. If taxi companies could be construed as providing taxi services, that would mean that taxi drivers could be construed as performing services and work that is directly related to their businesses. In other words, taxi drivers could be considered employees of the taxi companies, and therefore could be entitled to the same kinds of employee benefits and protections normally and historically associated with working people in America, like company provided healthcare, pensions, and the like. And, cab companies would be obliged to deduct employee payroll taxes like any other legitimate company in America has to do.
As for the dispatch services, they used to be defined by regulations as,
"any person, business, firm, partnership, association or corporation which holds itself out to the public as a service by or through which taxis may be summoned or dispatched by radio, telephone, or other means of communication..." (underline mine).
Now, it is proposed that they be defined as,
"any person, business, firm, partnership, association or corporation that holds a Dispatch Service permit issued by the SFMTA, and that receives communications from the public regarding taxi service and Found Property for the purpose of forwarding such communications to drivers affiliated with a color scheme that is affiliated with the dispatch service..." (underline mine)
So it's almost official again. Dispatch services are just moments and moments away from being legitimately out of the business of providing actual radio dispatch services to passengers so passengers can get cabs. Now, very soon, they will only manage the public passengers' information as a referral service, so that when passengers phone in for a taxi, it will be like posting it on an electronic message board and hoping that someone will pick up the order and respond. Passengers are going to have to use the 'throw it against a wall and see what sticks' approach when it comes to ordering a cab.
It's nothing new. This is how it's been already for so long, only now San Francisco is going to make it legitimate.
Except the people, for the most part, still believe that when they pick up a phone and try to order a cab, that they're calling a company that's in business to provide them with taxi service. Because they are generally unaware that that is not true, that they are only calling a message service, they are being ripped off, and not only by San Francisco's taxi industry, (mainly cab companies), but also by the SFMTA.
But what they do understand is that their radio service generally is bad, mediocre at best. And the SFMTA is making moves that will ensure that. That is why citizens are taking it upon themselves to explore alternatives such as Cabulous and Uber. They're looking for other ways to create better service.
At the same time, cab companies can still hire and fire all the gate and gas drivers.