File photo by John Han
Last Monday, February 6, 2012, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) reported to the Land Use and Economic Development Committee, its plans to improve taxi services in the City.
It is the first of what is expected to be quarterly reports from the transportations agency regarding taxi service in the City.
Supervisor Scott Wiener, during the meeting, said two things necessary to improve taxi service are increasing the number of available cabs and improving dispatch service.
And while the SFMTA seems to agree on those needs for improvements, it did not ignore the complexities of the taxi industry.
“The taxi industry in San Francisco and anywhere is extremely complex,” said SFMTA Director Ed Reiskin. “There a lot of different viewpoints, often divergent.”
Nonetheless, the SFMTA has a general plan to address both increasing the number of cabs, improving dispatch, and more.
SFMTA's Deputy Director of Taxi Services Christiane Hayashi revealed a somewhat comprehensive outline of what the agency plans for in the near future.
Serious Consideration Of Corporate Medallions:
Christiane stated on behalf of the SFMTA,
“Along the way people have asked us, companies in particular have asked us, to give a number of permits, temporary permits to the companies so that they could operate those vehicles without a medallion holder involved.
And that's something that we're seriously considering.”
SFMTA is currently drafting legislation to require electronic data collection across the industry.
“We think that will provide a very good beginning for the kind of quantifiable data that everybody needs to see in order to measure whether we're improving or not”, Hayashi stated.
Best Practices Study:
The Best Practices Study also calls for interviewing industry stakeholders deeply affected by taxi service, such as hotel and restaurant associations, other merchant groups, City supervisors, and the taxi industry itself. And, to establish performance standards not only for the industry, but for the regulators also.
There is to be a comparative study with regards to how other cities approach taxi issues, and a convenience and necessity study to help determine supply and demand, and meter rates.
Peak Time Demands And Single Operator Taxis:
Chris Hayashi stated on behalf of the SFMTA,
“All of the medallions that exist today are required to work 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. This doesn't help our peak time service issues, because during the peak times you will never have enough taxis.
But if you over supply in order to address the peak time taxi demand, then you're going to have too many taxi in times when perhaps there's not enough demand. Or at least that's a consideration.
So that's why we're trying this limited program of 50 additional part time permits.”
Wheelchair Passenger Service:
This is the Paratransit debit card system. The SFMTA says the debit cards allow the agency to better monitor Paratransit patterns and the number of wheelchair pickups.
The agency considers the electronic method an improvement over the paper method, citing that the old way encouraged too much fraud.
It says that money saved from not having to investigate as much fraud is being invested back into the Paratransit service as incentives for Ramp Taxi drivers to pick up more wheelchair passengers.
5 Year Capital Plan:
SFMTA has included two projects in its 5 year plan.
- Uniform Top Lights: Currently, there is no “off duty” light, or way for drivers to effectively communicate to passengers who are trying to flag them, that they're en route to a phoned-in dispatch service, or are turning in off shift. This is to subsidize new top lights that can signify that a cab is available or unavailable without having to turn off the meter.
- Electronic Taxi Hailing: A real time, electronic, GPS based platform allowing passengers to hail cabs directly using a desktop computer, laptop, smart phone, etc.
Christiane Hayashi stated on behalf of the MTA,
“We have no intention of bypassing the existing dispatch services that have already built up their telephone business. We think that this will provide just sort of an overlay that will still allow customers to choose their taxi companies, but would give the customers the ability to find taxis that are actually available by communicating with the drivers on a more one on one basis.”
My comment – This would allow the taxi industry to compete with the growing popularity of Uber, and would allow passengers the convenience they seek through Uber, to be available in more affordable taxi service.
This is to measure the success or failure rate of dispatch services as to how promptly, or whether or not, passengers get into cabs they called for, and then reward dispatch services for good performance.
It's also to measure how well dispatch services pick up the phones in the first place. The idea, obviously, is to ensure that passengers who call for cabs actually get them, then get inside of them, and arrive at their destination.
There is only one minor problem with this, and it is minor. But it still may be worth mentioning. And it is that the transportation code doesn't necessarily define dispatch services as accountable to the SFMTA's goal.
Transportation Code Section 1102(i) defines a “Dispatch Service” as...
“(i) "Dispatch Service" shall mean any person, business, firm, partnership, association or corporation that receives communications from the public regarding taxi service for the purpose of forwarding such communications to motor vehicle for hire drivers, and shall include any owner, manager, employee, lessee and any agent of said service. "Dispatch Service" shall not include any service through which the public is able to communicate directly with Drivers, and shall not include any effort on the part of a Driver to market his or her services to the public.”
(SFMTA Transportation Code Division II, Article 1100, Section 1102(i))
The part that may be inconsistent with the SFMTA's goal, is where it defines “Dispatch Service” as entities that,
“ receives communications from the public regarding taxi service for the purpose of forwarding such communications to motor vehicle for hire drivers”.
It seems to define dispatch services as an information referral service only. In other words, dispatch services are only obliged, by definition of the transportation code, to forward the passengers' requests to cab drivers.
So to measure performance based on this standard would only involve measuring how well the dispatch service picks up, or doesn't pick up the phone, and relays information from passengers to drivers.
That obviously is worth measuring.
But dispatch services do not seem obliged by the transportation code to ensure, or instruct the drivers to actually go get the orders, once and if the information has been successfully relayed by the dispatch.
To define dispatch services as accountable to that function could make the dispatch service a “taxi service provider”.
As many know, there are subtle tax reasons why cab companies, and their respective dispatch services do not want to be classified as “taxi service provider”.
They prefer to be defined as “leasing agents”, or, “taxi related services” that market services to taxi drivers, since “taxi service provider” would oblige them to service the public ridership.
If their primary function were defined by the City as being in service to the City's public ridership, that would put them in the same category of business, as the cab drivers that they hire to do the work.
For those who may not know, this could contribute to construal by government agencies at the state level, as cab companies hiring employees to perform the company's taxi services, but deliberately misclassifying them as independent contractors to avoid paying taxes, and other responsibilities.
Other plans outlined include -
- Improved driver training, including retraining for experienced drivers. The SFMTA says it hopes to implement retraining around June of this year, and would involve sensitivity training for seniors, disabled riders, bicyclists, and pedestrians.
- The SFMTA is drafting legislation to revise its credit card policy, saying it wants to reduce the 5% credit card fee to something more comparable to what other merchants pay. It also mentioned the passage of the Frank/Dodd Act, but did not say whether it, for now, would authorize a minimum on credit card fares.
- Improving the 311 system when passengers complain about drivers.