Photo by John Han.
A San Francisco resident, apparently living here for 15 years, has posed a few questions to Taxi TownSF. The anonymous inquirer claims to be a regular taxi rider and wants to know why it is so hard to get reliable phone service. The post was submitted to this website under the category that used to be called "Comments and Cab Stories". But because of the rider's questions, I decided to change that heading to "Ask A Cab Driver". If more riders know about an online page where they could ask cab drivers questions, hopefully a section of this website could help offer enlightenment.
“I take cabs 4/5 times a week and when I call, I have no faith they will actually show up. I often have to call back 2 or 3 times just to let the dispatcher know that I'm still waiting. And why the long wait times? I live in an area of the city that has a constant taxi stream, so waiting 15, 20, 30 minutes (or more) is ridiculous. Of course some companies are worse than others (but they're all pretty bad). Based on my experience of living here almost 15 years, Yellow Cab takes first place - in customer dissatisfaction. No one enjoys dealing with them. You can't get them on the phone and if you do they act like it's an imposition to speak with you. When dispatch tells me that I should just go down the street and flag a cab, it's like telling me they can't be bothered. I only call Yellow Cab when I have no other cab options. To be fair, once a cab shows up the drivers have been great (with very few exceptions). I'm not sure who's to blame for the current state of taxi service here in SF, but I'm pretty sure it's NOT the drivers. The system is NOT setup in a way that values the people that live here and take cabs most frequently.”
Hi Anonymous, and thanks for your question. And thanks for being the first one to ask a question. Hopefully, this will get more people started.
Let’s start off by breaking the questions down and answering them in pieces. You say,
“I often have to call back 2 or 3 times just to let the dispatcher know that I'm still waiting. And why the long wait times?”
The public rider-ship is deceived, in my opinion, because it is generally under a notion that taxi companies are there to provide it with taxi service. They are not. Take, for example, a comparison such as a pizza delivery service. If the pizza shows up within 45 minutes as promised and the food is good, then you’re happy. But if it takes 90 minutes, or it never shows up at all, then you’ll be upset and will never call that company again, and the restaurant risks losing your business. This is where I feel, as I’ll try to explain, the riders are being victimized, when similarly trying to request taxi services by phone.
It may sound odd, but taxi companies are not in business to service the actual riders themselves. And their profit and loss margins are not dependent upon the volumes of rider-ship the same way pizza services could be heavily dependent upon volumes of pizza delivery. There’s an element of false advertising in their business model.
Taxi companies are car rental companies making primary money by charging taxi drivers rental fees for use of the company owned vehicles. The taxi drivers are considered their primary “customers”, paying fees into the taxi companies for their “company provided services”. So, taxi company revenues are secured, as long as they are leasing their taxicabs to drivers, not whether you are getting your cab in a timely manner, or get it at all. It is of no financial risk for them if they fail to ensure that you, the rider receive customer satisfaction.
“I live in an area of the city that has a constant taxi stream, so waiting 15, 20, 30 minutes (or more) is ridiculous.”
Again, taxi companies do not exist to service you. And it is no financial risk to them if you are unsatisfied with the City’s taxi service. However, they still by and large hold the monopoly over the dispatch systems. That means that if there are empty cabs near your area and could get to you within minutes but none of them belonged to the company you called, then they would not know you’re requesting a pickup, and you could therefore have to wait longer for the one cab that’s from the company you called. Having to call only one company restricts your access to all the available cabs that could be out there for phone service.
Many have realized the flaw in this structure years ago. If taxi companies do not consider themselves a service to the rider-ship, they should not control the manner with which riders phone the taxis for pickups.
A solution was offered years ago called Centralized Dispatching. Many drivers supported it. Politicians supported it in the past and some still strongly do today. But the taxi companies have fought against it, and still would today. Centralized Dispatching could require the City’s cab companies, in addition to their branded company names, to also be tied into a central system. This way, if passengers requesting cabs by phone didn’t care which cab company it was, as long as one showed up, they could request the closest available cab, without having to pick a company.
“Based on my experience of living here almost 15 years, Yellow Cab takes first place - in customer dissatisfaction. No one enjoys dealing with them. You can't get them on the phone and if you do they act like it's an imposition to speak with you. When dispatch tells me that I should just go down the street and flag a cab, it's like telling me they can't be bothered. I only call Yellow Cab when I have no other cab options.”
They have no incentive to provide you with good customer service because they do not consider you to be their primary customer. Again, that’s the logic addressed behind Centralized Dispatching.
Some young, entrepreneurial types have tried to resolve this through apps like Cabulous or Uber. However, my opinion is their growth must accelerate to have more viable impact. Also, most of the City’s senior citizen riders on Paratransit do not typically own smart phones.
“The system is NOT setup in a way that values the people that live here and take cabs most frequently.”
A general, and often widely held perception is governments that regulate industries often give in to the pressures of big businesses. In this case, that would be the City and County of San Francisco caving in to the pressures and interests of the cab companies.
For the record, there are other reasons that contribute to the difficulty of getting good cab service by phone, although I think lack of Centralized Dispatching is the main one. But sometimes taxi drivers accept a radio order and then flake on it. Simple as that. I wanted to add that to be fair as it was not acknowledged in the original comments.
Also, because of the lack of Centralized Dispatching, sometimes passengers try to create central dispatching by themselves by calling more than one cab company and then boogie into whichever cab shows up. This sometimes makes cab drivers less willing to take radio calls. And, because of the uncertainty of cab service by phone, sometimes passengers flake the same way drivers do. And this also can make drivers less willing to respond to radio calls.
I think Centralized Dispatching should be required of all SF cab companies. And, taxi apps for smart phones (I-Phone and Android) should be required in all cabs. It is not enough simply to put more cabs out on the streets, as the cab companies keep saying. This is always their solution to the problems you're inquiring about because they make money from leasing cabs to taxi drivers. Remember they do not make money from the volume of your rider-ship. More cabs on the street means more money for them because of the added number of cabs they would have to lease to taxi drivers.
However, cab drivers often fear the increased competition would add burden to their livelihoods. While I feel there's some validity in the anecdote that more taxis on the street could make more people take cabs, it has to be coupled with vast improvements to the dispatching systems. Drivers need a better way of accessing fares through phone orders with their customers, and vice versa.