Back in the Saddle: Driving Fleet Weekend

San Francisco Taxi with Photoshopped Blue Angels in Sky

San Francisco Taxi with Photoshopped Blue Angels in Sky

It’s been a long time since I’ve taxi blogged.

I drove last Saturday for the first time in a few weeks. I’ve been working dispatch phones and doing VidSF work instead of driving over the past few weeks.

Novel-length post after the break.

  • I love the feeling of getting back on the road after such a long time off driving. The routine of adjusting my mirrors, seat, radio (yes, NPR), dispatch radio, logging into the VeriFone, all while driving down Selby Street on my way to the Mission to start hunting for early weekend fares (or the super late-night drunks). Paradise.
  • This past weekend was so incredibly packed with events that it was tough to get a car. The cashier had vancab available. Not my favorite vehicle (that’d be the indisputable champion Toyota Camry Hybrid followed closely by the Ford Escape Hybrid), but I’ve logged so many hours with Chrysler’s Dodge Caravan that I’ve come to embrace its shortcomings, such as the notoriously frustrating sliding door handle. Businessmen and grandmothers alike scorn this poorly designed lever. Daimler surely had no say on this one.
  • I drove around for at least a half-hour before finding my first fare — a radio call from a lower Pac Heights hotel. I was surprised to find a very young Asian woman waiting for me. She quickly jumped in the cab and handed me a Google Maps itinerary. She was heading out to Visitacion Valley to take her SATs.

    As we flew down Gough to the 101 I thought back to my trip to take my SATs. How did I get there? What was I thinking? What was I listening to? 1989 Honda Accord, how much I hadn’t prepared, NPR’s Weekend Edition. I had an odd satisfaction knowing my fare would also have echoes of Scott Simon while filling in bubbles.

    I was surprised at the minivan traffic congestion as we neared Phillip Burton High School. I guess parents want to drive their kids to life-changing events, not wanting to risk Muni. I wanted to tell her she’ll do great and get a 1600, but I realized that they don’t score like that anymore and I felt old.

  • Many dozens of minutes later I found a gaggle of male yuppies at Union and Larkin heading to the President’s Cup at Harding Park. I started to appreciate the vancab — room for 6 with luggage.

    I over’ed the dispatcher, Larry, to see if he knew the approved drop point. Working the dispatch phones earlier in the week I remembered the SFMTA’s DPT had planned out approved drop points. Larry gave me his best guess for cross streets and I plotted a course in my head. I love the fog in the Sunset on a weekend morning.

    As we approached the park I saw an armada of tiny, blue, three-wheeled vehicles. Gosh, I thought, my DPT friends from the SFMTA will surely be glad to see me and my passengers, especially now that San Francisco taxis are regulated under the same agency. I’m diligently performing my duties as an essential part of our City’s diverse transportation infrastructure.

    To my surprise, or maybe not, my DPT friends were not friendly, nor did they successfully direct me to a designated zone for dropping off my passengers. The first DPT officer waved me forward out of annoyance as I slowed to ask where I should drop, as did the second. Unfortunately, this process continued until I was about to clear any reasonable walking distance for my passengers. I was unable to do a u-turn because of the concrete median on Lake Merced Blvd, and the street had no shoulder. As traffic flows very quickly around tight curves, I did not feel it prudent to stop in a thru-lane.

    I was thus left with no other alternative than to pull perpendicularly into an exit-only curb-cut. As my passengers paid and exited the vehicle (at a reasonably quick pace given the fast card processing magic of VeriFone Transportation Systems) DPT officers approached me from all sides and started to yell. Oh my, a “SPECIAL” Muni shuttle, with no passengers on board (is that what “SPECIAL” means?) was approaching the exit-only curb-cut at a deadly 2 miles per hour, striking fear in the hearts of parking enforcement professionals in the immediate area.

    Look, SFMTA, let’s make a deal here. If you bank the City $495,533,925 from a transferable medallion scheme, can you use a small portion of that to actually administer the entity from which that revenue is generated? Specifically, please plan for drop-off and pickup points for taxis and inform your salaried employees of these plans. It will make the lives of your residents, taxi drivers and dispatchers much easier. Thanks.

  • I picked up a fare from California and Polk heading to Noe Valley. White female, mid-30’s, eccentric in dress and speech. She jumped in the front seat, presumably as a silent protest against Chrysler’s sliding door handle design, and started a conversation about her friend in her late 40’s who decided against better judgment to embark on a career change to become an MD. Her friend will in her late 50’s before practicing. Wow.
  • My vancab scored me a number of fares for which I’d otherwise be ineligible had I been driving my favorite sedan hybrid. Yes, the math usually works out such that despite gas savings on the hybrids, I’d make more money with a vancab, especially on the weekends because of the group fares. (And yes, I’m spelling vancab as one word. Deal with it.)
  • On the way back from an airport run I scored thanks to the vancab, I picked up an RV park call. For the uninitiated, it’s near Candlestick Park on the way back from SFO. Nirvina in cab-land is scoring a 3rd and Gilman returning. (It’s called as 3rd and Gilman on the radio.)

    I arrived to find an older German couple. They had just picked up the rental RV and were heading to the Wharf to meet up with the kids. Herr Doctor and wife hadn’t realized that everyone else in the Bay Area was also trying to head up to the piers at the exact same time.

    My previous fare had a good chuckle on the way out to SFO. He had asked where all those heading north into the City would park. I joked that they were already parked on the 101. Ha! This didn’t seem nearly as funny heading inbound with my new deutschen frienden.

    I was impressed by my ability to bypass traffic. I headed inbound from Candlestick on Bayshore, jumped on 101 which flowed okay between Army and the underused 7th Street off-ramp. We headed up 7th to Leave, then Hyde. Had it been a race, I would have won.

    Herr Doctor gave me a $10 tip on a $22 fare. Danke schoen.

  • Around 1pm we passed a supersaturation threshold where overall demand for taxis significantly outstripped supply.* As I’ve written before on this blog, I have a split personality on this issue. It’s bliss from the perspective of my personal earnings and fare-induced highs, but the palpable frustration from potential taxicab customers tempers my mood.

    It’s grossly irresponsible for the United State’s second most dense city to have such poor peak-time point-to-point transportation solutions. Unfortunately, SFMTA’s transferable medallion scheme will not address this service and security issue. For shame.

  • *Caveat: A predictable and frustrating phenomenon occurs with geographically concentrated events such as Fleet Week. Immediately approaching (~30 min pre) and just after the beginning (~15 min post) the majority of fares are heading toward the geographically concentrated event, such as the Marina or Fish Wharf in this case, resulting in hundreds of taxis stuck in traffic as tourists circle for parking that isn’t there.

    If one was to look at raw analytics of demand vs. available taxicabs at times like these, you’d see a very odd result: perhaps 25-50% of the on-road fleet is vacant while there is demand for 125%+ of the fleet size. Taxi fleet efficiency alone is an incredibly convincing argument for a congestion charge, which the SFCTA is diligently pursuing to the best of its abilities.

    I encountered a few empty cabs who refused to take passengers to the Marina. This is, of course, de jure illegal, but very rational behavior on the part of the cab driver. I took 3 fares to the Marina in the course of two hours and spent 15+ minutes each time trying to battle traffic back to find fares. I could have earned double if I implemented this illegal policy. What would you do if you had to pay rent?

  • During this supersaturation period I picked up a fare that, thank heavens, wasn’t heading toward the Marina.

    A very stressed woman in formal attire was heading back to her downtown hotel from a church in Pac Heights to pickup the ring for a wedding that was to start in 15 minutes.

    We flew inbound on California as we discussed my interest-level to wait for her to fetch the ring from her hotel and return. I was frank in explaining that it is not in my financial interest to wait for her to get her ring, but, of course, I’d be happy to do that for her.

    The City and County of San Francisco’s Department of Weights and Measures calibrates the meter on behalf of the SFMTA to register $.50 per minute = $30 per hour for wait time. However, in a period of supersaturation I can get another flag drop and earn ~$60/hr. (Keep in mind this is revenue, not profit, as it does not include my costs for the vehicle, medallion rental/lease, gasoline, etc.) Sure enough, while waiting for her return at the hotel on Nob Hill I had to fight off a European backpacker knocking on my window for a cab, frustrated at my denial to provide him with transportation solutions.

    We flew back even faster on Pine and scored all greens from Pine/Mason to Pine/Steiner. Passing thru Van Ness, Franklin and Gough on a green is rare enough, and then to jump on the outbound Pine green wave starting at Octavia is a very improbable occurrence. (Ask my transportation planning friends at the SFCTA.) Luck was on her side.

    She gave me $30 for a $14 fare. Generous, yes, and also a prime example of price variance during fixed supply. While not “fair” per se, it’d sure be market efficient if there was an easier way of determining the price premium a potential fare was willing to pay during periods of supersaturation.

    If only there was a way to know one’s desire to pay a premium before engaging in the transaction. Hint, hint.

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One Response to Back in the Saddle: Driving Fleet Weekend

  1. Glad to see you’re back in both the cabbing and blogging saddles!

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