KQED Perspective: Peak Medallions

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I condensed my usual rant about peak medallions down to a 2 minute piece for a KQED‘s Perspective. It’s a quick op-ed that airs during the morning drive time. It will air again on Saturday morning.

It sounds a bit odd to hear my own voice, but it was a fun process to write for the spoken word and record it at the station.

Link (Direct MP3 Link)

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13 Responses to KQED Perspective: Peak Medallions

  1. Bob says:

    That’s really cool! What did you have to do in order to have your voice heard by the masses?

  2. Hoopla Hattie says:

    Thoughtlessness, facile reactive analysis, self aggrandized snobbery. San Francisco taxi cabs should not be made the toilet paper of the City. Adding 1,000 cabs will not solve the problem. Cabs will still seek out the same strategies that fail currently causing a greater glut in North Beach, the Castro, Cow Hollow, the Marina, Valencia St. without adding 1 cab to the general service of the rest of the City.

    Stand on the corner of Green and Columbus and count the empty cabs, even on a Friday night. Then go out to the avenues and count the empty streets. Adding more vehicles is not the answer. It is quicker to pick someone up off the street, even cab glutted streets, than to wait for a radio call in the avenues.

    Will Hunter’s Point get more cabs after dark? I don’t think so. Will the Excelsior? No. Will any area in the City that currently does not have reliable service become more reliable? I don’t think so. I don’t think you do either. Indeed, I can see a further degradation as cabs become more and more desperate for the little revenues available. The word ‘squabbling’ comes to mind, as in what pigeons do around a scant food supply.

    What about in the Financial during rush hour? Will more cabs hang out there to fight the traffic and other cabs? What about bar time? Can you fit even one more cab into that idiocy where all the patrons pour out onto the street at exactly the same time?

    People who need cabs need cabs a certain times and those times are usually tied to when other people need cabs. Rush hour, all 4 hours of it, slows everything to a crawl and even if you wanted to dedicate your time to the Financial you couldn’t. As soon as you get a ride you are going out of the Financial to some other part of the City. Are you going to dead head back to the Financial from the Castro? I doubt it.

    The only reason people think that cabs are a free commodity is that the drivers are not on salary and, as such, are not counted economically. MUNI IS salaried and look at their performance record. If you want to pay comparable salaries to cab drivers and provide the same benefits then you can then map out a response schedule to service the whole city equally. But, then again, it would be managed by MUNI and we all know what that means. Under the latest Proposition (Prop. A), San Francisco taxi cabs have come under the control of the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the same group that ‘controls’ MUNI. That commission is under the control of the Mayor’s office. This will be interesting. I can see the lawsuits warming on the grill.

    Cab drivers are not an endless supply of cheap labor. There are limits and those limits, once crossed, will be populated by new waves of drivers who are reckless and dangerous. Driver on driver violence is a growing concern as it is and to further frustrate the situation is madness.

    The last time there was a dearth of qualified drivers the result was the ‘warm body’ policy where crack heads and junkies became the easy hire. Wasn’t that fun. Or, how about the period when drug dealing and pimping was all the rage with during the Taxi Dancing Era? Remember that?

    Taxis are not a cure all for the general traffic issues San Francisco suffers on a daily basis. Cabs should be taken for what they are and not squeezed into service where other systems have failed, without equitable compensation.

    Gavin Newsom has stuck his finger into the eye of cab drivers exposing them to public umbrage for political gain. That Gavin Newsome should engage in opportunistic slight of tongue by dumping general problems onto the cabs should not be a surprise to anyone. Cab drivers, almost by definition, are politically disenfranchised and are an easy target for demagoguery. That Gavin Newsome would stoop to this type of rhetorical posturing is not news. That you would parrot this posture without critical review is not news either.

    -Hattie, Rampage Against Stupidity
    (all rights reserved, 2008)

  3. Jay says:

    Nice Work. I think you could have dumbed it down a little bit, it was a bit difficult to follow.

    Check out the yahoo media player for embedding the MP3 in your blog: http://developer.yahoo.com/mediaplayer/

  4. kfarr says:

    @Bob: Thanks. It was really easy, actually. You simply submit a roughly 2-minute segment and they let you know if they’d be interested in airing it.

    @Jay: Thanks for the feedback. I was mixing a lot of causes and results, but the basic idea is: more cabs when demand is higher, less cabs when demand is lower. Easy enough. Does the media player work with WordPress? As much as I love WordPress, it places a lot of limits on what you can embed.

    @Hoopla: Thanks for your comments.

    I agree with your general sentiment that a variable supply of cabs on the streets won’t fix everything. It is a small step. But, it is a necessary step. I drive my cab around town between 3 am and 5 am and pick up no fares. But, when I go out with friends on weekend nights it’s nearly impossible to find a cab at any point in the evening. Nobody can contest that there is a variability in demand. We should attempt to approximately match with a variable supply.

    I contest your viewpoint that adding cabs during peak times will result in the ‘same old thing’, with cabbies deadheading to the airport or always going to the same places. One of the most fascinating and magical aspects of taxis in our City is its natural reward structure. If there are too many cabs in an area they will not be rewarded. They will naturally seek out new areas to earn revenue including (albeit rarely) the Excelsior. Put more simply, if there are too many cabbies waiting in line at the airport it will become less and less profitable and cab drivers will find other locations to get fares. No, peak medallions will not make cabs instantly arrive in Outer Sunset, etc. But, they will be more likely to arrive in a timely manner.

    I fear you misunderstood my opinion on cab drivers as a labor force. As I stated in the piece, I believe it is essential for cab drivers to be well paid, as well paid drivers are safer and more knowledgeable about City geography. Variable supply of cabs would INCREASE the average salary of cab drivers, not decrease. You will contest this. Yes, salaries will very slightly decrease for existing Fri/Sat night drivers as a whole. But, there would be many more well paying Fri/Sat night shifts available for all drivers. And, less of the horribly paying early morning/day shifts would be available.

    I also agree that taxis are not a ‘solution’ for traffic problems, nor do I ever state such. They are an integral part of our City public transit system, but more needs to be done curbing personal vehicle use to noticeably reduce City congestion.

    Finally, I must correct your statement about parroting Mayor Newsom’s beliefs. I do NOT agree with Mayor Newsom’s addition of these taxicabs on the street as you implied. I state this clearly in the piece. I believe that we need **peak cabs**, not cabs operating 24 hours per day, as the Mayor has done.

  5. Steve C. says:

    Finally got around to listening to this, congrats! That’s incredibly cool that you got on the air, and it was a nice piece.

    I haven’t used it myself, but I’ve seen this Audio Player WordPress plugin for easily embedding mp3 files at a number of sites, and it might be what you need:
    http://www.1pixelout.net/code/audio-player-wordpress-plugin/

  6. Hoopla Hattie says:

    I didn’t say dead heading to the airport. I said dead heading to the Financial. The airport is a whole other morass. The peak medallion thing, as are all of the other issues brought up here (in regard to taxis), have been voiced by the Mayor’s office pandering to the public prior to your feeble efforts. If you chose to only gainsay without supporting your arguments then I will quietly leave the scene. I have other things to do.

    There are many studies about how cabs make decisions and none of them state that cabs will more frequent dead zones when more cabs hit the streets, even it is only during peak hours. Of course there is no adequate definition of what ‘peak’ is. To you, it appears, peak is when you want to go out on a Friday night. So, this whole proposal would be to keep you from having to wait for a cab when YOU want a cab. If peak means rush hour then those dynamics must be included with all of the other issues specific with taxis.

    You could have said: Float all the medallions at an unlimited level, and let the market work it out. I agree with this to a certain extent. Then, a cab would be rented only for those hours when there is benefit and could be parked when business sags or at least rented for adjusted market values. Unfortunately, vehicles are attached to those medallions and they have to be paid for, inspected and insured (will insurance cost less for a part-time medallion? No.).

    A variable rental schedule for an unlimited fleet is problematic. The cab companies have already stated that they would not pay for or maintain these limited use ‘peak’ hour medallions. Some other completely new financial system would have to be proposed to create a viable funding system for the costs of additional limited use vehicles. Any ideas?

    Issue: There is limited training for the cab using public to maximize cab service. If, and it is a big IF, the public, the dispatch services and cab drivers begin to communicate their particular issues I believe 25% of the problems would go away. As it is now, these stake holders have no method to voice their respective needs. Maybe, just maybe, or more likely, maybe not, you could begin working on something along this line. Of course, that would be work, actual work to try to solve actual problems, a concept with which you are probably unfamiliar.

    How is it possible that you think that you can throw cabs at a supply problem when this same problem is common to all of the other transportation systems in the Bay Area? Congestion is a major component limiting all transportation service during ‘peak’ hours including; private vehicles, roadway availability and, believe it or not, cab service.

    A specific issue is that if a cab driver is informed about a congested area they will avoid the area entirely. Will adding peak medallions crack this problem? The answer is no. The drivers who do dive into that sea of exasperation get stuck themselves severely limiting the number of passenger pickups per hour.

    Do you understand the impact congestion has on rush hour cab service? If you did you would quickly back off of this notion of peak medallions. Solve this one and another 25% would go bye-bye here. There are solutions but few are brave enough to propose them. Are you brave?

    Congestion frustrates bus systems, package delivery systems and intercity transit systems where the adding and subtracting vehicles is common practice. With these groups there is no issue of exploiting under and finally unpaid labor as you propose with sneak medallions. They would love to be able to but those battles have already been fought. In those systems labor is accounted and credited. Pull out the spreadsheet and get to work but make sure you put in all the costs not just those that make you feel better.

    At this point I think you are just lazy. Why not spend a little time and effort to actually research these issues rather than spout off on something you, apparently, know nearly nothing about. There has been nothing here that has not been put forward by Gavin Newsome’s mouthies. Do some research, check it out before sticking your head into the lion’s jaw (or tiger, if you prefer). Please show me ANY competent analysis where this scenario will benefit cab drivers and, or the cab companies and, or the general public. I struggle to find any logic in what you propose.

    Do you think that because you have a modicum of intelligence and education that you automatically have knowledge? Surely this is sophomoric thinking, at best. There is no magic wand to make these problems go away. Peak medallions are not magic wands and you are no wizard.

    Hannibal Hattie
    (All rights reserved 2008)

  7. Eric W says:

    Interesting, kfarr. I have a question regarding the Peak Medallions idea. What do the extra cars do when it’s not peak hours? Do they sit idle? Or do you mean to allocate taxis that otherwise would be off during those times. I’m no expert on the taxi system, but I assume to maximize revenue, no cab sits idle (meaning not being used on a shift) more than a few hours at a time.

    Hattie, you raised some interesting questions yet propose few solutions. Then, you started attacking kfarr, which does little good for your own credibility. I hope you enjoyed writing your witty insults because as a reader trying to learn about the issue at hand, I found your crass remarks distracting, disrespectful, and counterproductive.

  8. kfarr says:

    @Eric: Thanks for the comment. That is most definitely the biggest problem with this idea. And, as hoopla mentioned above, the cost for insurance and liability coverage alone for each additional vehicle is significant.

    I’ll continue with an explanation, but first I want to make my view on peak medallions a bit more clear.

    Fact: The City government is responsible to the tax paying citizens and guests of the City to provide safe and reliable taxi services.

    City residents are clear in expressing that supply of legal, City regulated taxicabs is insufficient during peak periods, specifically Friday and Saturday evenings. A regression model used to estimate demand for cabs backs this anecdotal evidence. The author of this study shows that San Francisco has an insufficient number of taxis.

    The City chose to address this issue by adding about 100 more cabs to City streets 24 hours per day. This IS a valid solution, but it is not labor friendly. Some City residents would say this is good enough. Who cares about the labor implications? They might have a point. These people could also argue that taxi driver earnings are already artificially inflated by the artificial supply limitation. But, I believe peak medallions would be a small step toward a solution that addresses the peak supply problem while being more labor friendly by maintaining cab driver wages during non-peak periods.

    City cab fleets have extra capacity already. Yellow, Luxor and DeSoto, the 3 largest cab companies, have fleets of 150+ vehicles. Each company has a percentage of their fleet which are spare cabs. These spare cabs operate when the primary vehicle assigned to a medallion is out of service. I would guess the number is about 5% of spares for DeSoto; not sure about other companies.

    The peak medallion concept would make use of these spare vehicles.

    The theory is this: let’s use our existing fleets NOW at peak times, before we invest significant money in additional cabs that operate 24 hours per day. It’s more labor friendly, which can have some end-user benefits as I described in the piece.

    During peak times companies would strive to ensure all vehicles, including the spares, are in working order so the entire fleet could be used. Major scheduled repairs that place vehicles out of service would take place during the week.

    There is a definite limit of the number of peak medallions the existing fleets including spares can handle. At some point the cab companies would need to purchase additional spare vehicles. These spare cars have additional value above and beyond peak time only use.

    Yes, this is not a perfect, end-all solution. But, by using the spare fleets (and providing incentive to increase spare fleet percentages) this could release around 100 additional cabs on the streets during peak times, which would be a good step forward toward a peak supply solution that is more labor friendly. The only other viable solution is the non-labor friendly addition of cabs 24 hours per day. I think most cab drivers would agree it is worth at least trying to use our full fleets so that we can keep driver earnings higher, before adding more cabs on the streets 24 hours per day.

    The bad news is that the City has already decided to release the 100 additional 24/7 cabs. It’s a done deal. The good news is that the Taxi Commission has stated that it is a priority to look into peak medallion permitting before releasing more cabs. Unfortunately, since the Taxi Commission will be rolled under the MTA, no-one is quite sure what will happen with the commission priorities in the future. We’ll have to stay tuned.

  9. Hoopla Hattie says:

    Again, ignorance prevails. There is no ‘reserve fleet’ of spare cabs. Every single cab that can totter out of the yard is on the road. I don’t know what world you live in but it is not the cab world. Go over to Yellow, DeSoto, Luxor etc., and see how spares are managed. They go out when other cabs are broken and there are plenty of broken cabs.

    Cab companies are mandated to keep spares for just that purpose. So, if such a reserve fleet did exist and you could use these imaginary vehicles for peak hour shifts (whatever that means) cab companies would have to purchase new vehicles to replace these spares. You don’t like my insults? Then, do the research.

    As to your imaginary endless labor pool of drivers: I believe the courts have spoken on that. As of Jan. 8th 2008 the 9th Circuit has ruled that taxi drivers are employees. Too bad for cab companies. Too bad that you didn’t anticipate this and propose some solutions. I have. Not to you of course, you are insignificant (as if you haven’t noticed).

    Research time:

    http://www.ca9.uscourts.gov/ca9/newopinions.nsf/AAFA0BCEAE2EE2C7882573CA005AD9AA/$file/0573752.pdf?openelement

  10. kfarr says:

    @Hoopla: Here’s the working URL: Link

    Note this case is in specific regards to Friendly’s onerous operating procedures and contracts. The ruling does not imply that all taxi drivers are now considered employees.

    While your germane contributions to the discussion are appreciated, personal insults are not. Further postings with this tone will be deleted.

  11. who_the says:

    Any salient points Hattie raises are drowned out by pointless insults and straw man arguments.

    To me, one trait of a “good” cab driver is a sensitivity to market conditions and ability to adapt to them. I’ve spent large portions of many profitable shifts in Hunters Point, Visitacion Valley, and the Outer Mission and Sunset, because that’s where fares were. In addition, in my experience, these fares tend to be long, with lots of regulars and good tippers. This speaks directly to Kfarr’s observation about the reward structure of S.F. taxi driving.

    Also, “25 percent” of problems do not go away just by talking about them. The only true solution to any problem is innovation; in this case, a creative technological approach (like, perhaps a unified SMS- and GPS-based passenger and driver information and dispatch system) is an example of something that *could* actually solve problems with the S.F. taxi system raised by Hattie, Kfarr and others.

    And since Hattie asked for solutions to fund additional vehicles, here are two:

    1) Require a certain percentage of fleets to be smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. Three specific cars, the non-hybrid Ford Escape, the Toyota Corolla, and the Honda Civic, use less gas and cost less than the ubiquitous Crown Victoria. The lower per-unit acquisition cost would enable a larger pool of vehicles.

    2) Amend the taxi code to allow vehicles with 350,000 miles or 6-year-old vehicles to be used, up from the current 300,000 and 5-year limits. Although maintenance costs do increase as vehicles get older, companies that perform aggressive maintenance get more life from their cars. Yellow is getting the full 300,000 miles out of many Ford Escape Hybrids right now, so it’s not just the CVs that can live long, productive lives. (Or that can die slow, boring deaths, based on your perspective.)

  12. kfarr says:

    @who_the: Thanks for the post. I think it’s constructive to consider all ideas to a problem, even if some won’t pan out. It is indeed frustrating when some don’t share that view.

    I liked hearing about your experience finding fares in the outer neighborhoods of the City. I’ll admit that I find myself getting into a ‘rut’ 6-months into the job. My ‘route’ often winds through Mission, Castro, Haight, Divis, Pac Heights, Marina, Polk, Downtown, repeat. Your post is good motivation to jump out of this habit.

    I also find the discussion of an integrated, centralized dispatch system quite intriguing. My gut feeling is that it would be a much more efficient way to serve City residents. I would feel a bit of nostalgia for the loss of the analog radio which my company and a few others still use for dispatching. It is a joy to have a connection with the spoken word to the dispatcher at the central office. But, in the end a combined and computerized system would probably serve our residents better.

    Re: #1 I would be curious to see the cost comparisons. I’m not really sure how to find this info out, especially since the bigger companies surely get quite a volume discount on their cars.

    Re: #2 I agree. I think it might appear crazy to a lot of people, since lower seems ‘better’, but allowing older vehicles with more mileage would let the cab companies get more bang for their buck. Especially with the larger companies that perform their own maintenance, they have an amazing capacity to keep vehicles in proper working order at a relatively low cost.

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