Website highlights financial stress of driving a taxi in the City

San Francisco Yellow Cab 2803

I point your temporary attention to a Flash website produced by UC Berkeley j-school grad students Eric Zassenhaus and Amy Jeffries.

The video clips thumbnailed along the bottom are accurate and colorful paintings of a typical taxi shift. Well worth a view.

But wait, there’s more. The site also features insightful interviews with Heidi Machen, the SF Taxi Commission Executive Director; Jim Gillespie, Yellow Cab President; and Thomas George-Williams, United Taxicab Workers member.

Since I drive a cab in the City and can’t shut up about local politics, I have some pointed reactions:

I don’t know who Heidi Machen is or how she got to be Executive Director of the SF Taxi Commission, but she doesn’t seem to have an accurate grasp of the industry over which she regulates. This is a bit scary.

When asked about the recent gate-fee increase, Ms. Machen responds with a bubbly response. “In many ways it’s very positive,” she starts, repeating again for emphasis, “in many ways it’s very positive, because, if indeed the taxi companies needed money to purchase the alternative fuel and hybrid vehicles San Francisco is looking at a clean taxi fleet in 3-4 years. Wow! That’s phenomenal!”

“If indeed?” If indeed? Ms. Machen, your job, for which you are paid a bulbous salary of some sort, is to be Executive Director of the Taxi Commission. There should be no “if” in your response. You should know whether or not taxi companies need money to purchase alternative fuel and hybrid vehicles BEFORE implementing fee increases.

Continuing, “On the other hand you look at the controller’s report and the controller said this would have an immediate detrimental effect on taxi drivers’ incomes. So, that can be a negative, obviously, because taxi drivers, a lot of them, may be hanging on marginally. On the other hand, maybe it encourages taxi drivers to become more efficient. Some would fear it would make taxi drivers more reckless.” Ponderously she summarizes, “I think there are some positives and some possible negatives that we’re looking at.”

My fear is she doesn’t seem to “get it.” A key sticking point: taxi companies need CPI gate increases but drivers also need correlated revenue increases. The discussion of green cabs is a sideshow distracting from this core issue.

On the other hand, Mr. Gillespie in his role as General Manager of Yellow Cab understands the situation perfectly. Unfortunately, his role is not an advocate for drivers but instead for revenue maximization for Yellow Cab. (This is not a judgment of his motivation, just a recognition thereof.) But, at least he “gets it.”

Thomas George-Williams, an active member of the local United Taxi Worker union “gets it” too. But, as most drivers are not members of the Union, its influence, regardless of Mr. George-Williams “getting it,” is unfortunately questionable.


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2 Responses to Website highlights financial stress of driving a taxi in the City

  1. rzu says:

    Heidi was an aide to Newsom when he was a supervisor. Soon after Newsom was appointed to the BoS by Mayor Brown, Gavin became chair of the Taxi Task Force and Heidi staffed it. One of Newsom’s early high-profile victories was the passage of the ballot measure he authored which created the Taxi Commission (as his aide, Heidi presumably was very involved in helping to craft this measure). Once Gavin became Mayor, he appointed Heidi as head of the Commission.

    From what I can tell, she did an alright job of keeping the Taxi Commission going, but wasn’t really effective in terms of making the Commission more functional or advocating for any changes. The most controversial thing she’s done is go after medallion-holders who aren’t active drivers – an important component of the reforms put in place by Quentin Kopp. Unfortunately for her, this put her on the wrong side of a number of the Commissioners, who were most interested in maintaining the status quo and protecting the interests of absentee medallion-holders. She was fired in a late-night meeting in 2006 and only re-instated after Newsom re-engineered the Commission. I don’t imagine that such an adversarial relationship with the Commission has helped her in her job, or allowed her to effectively police the medallion-holders. To be fair, the make-up of the Commission is probably partly to blame, but given that Newsom wrote the legislation which created it and appointed the Commissioners and the Director, I’d say it is another failing of his photo-op administration.

    Heidi was recently replaced as part of Newsom’s housecleaning at the beginning of his second mayoral term. Jordanna Thigpen (who was helping to rout out medallion fraud) has been appointed Acting Executive Director, but presumably she is only there to keep the lights on and the Commission out of the newspapers until the Taxi Commission is “folded into” the MTA.

    The clean-fleet legislation, by the way, is a long-term project of Paul Gillespie (no relation to Jim Gillespie), who is the President of the Commission, and an active cab driver. Paul was on the Taxi Task Force with Newsom and was one of Mayor Brown’s original appointees to the Commission. (He also was one of the dissenting votes in the decision to can Heidi.) Paul is a good guy, and he is right to push for a greener cab fleet. But I think that in his desire to see this clean-fleet legislation passed before the Taxi Commission goes away, he has made too many compromises with the cab companies, resulting in an even greater squeeze on the drivers. Ultimately, drivers do benefit from more fuel-efficient vehicles, but it seems like this is lost in the higher gate fees.

    I think the industry and San Francisco cab patrons would benefit from having more folks join Thomas George-Williams in the UTW. That might help balance out the power of the larger cab companies and absentee medallion-holders. The public is poorly served by having cabbies who don’t have health insurance and who can’t afford to take sick days or vacations. Incidentally, are you a member of the UTW?

  2. kfarr says:

    Wow, rzu, that’s a comprehensive history. Thanks for that.

    From my memory of the gate fee increase legislation first offered to the BoS by Supervisor Alioto-Pier, it was originally unrelated to the fuel-efficient vehicle initiative. (Conveniently that PDF has been removed from the City website.) I remember the original legislation claimed excessive costs from paratransit services as a key reason for increasing gate fees.

    The resulting legislation is a bit confusing as it appears Paul Gillespie’s well-intentioned ideas were combined with what was originally Ms. Alioto-Pier’s gate fee increase.

    I have mixed feelings about the gate fee increase. It seems necessary to keep revenue of cab companies to at least match inflation (actually this increase doesn’t even match inflation, check out the chart at the bottom). But, it’s a bit irresponsible to pass gate fee increases with no contingency for drivers to increase their revenue accordingly. Add to the gate fee increase recent fuel cost increases and there is understandable grumbling among drivers.

    I think the ‘alternative fuel vehicle’ fee is great for the most part. I would have no problem paying even 20 extra bucks to drive a Prius or a Honda hybrid.

    The ‘alternative fuel vehicle’ fee breaks down a bit in practice: the folks writing the legislation didn’t seem to realize that ‘alternative fuel vehicles’ also includes compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles which cost drivers just as much or more than regular unleaded gas vehicles to refuel. So, unfortunately, CNG taxi drivers have to pay the extra fee on top of already oppressive fuel costs — a goofy and surely unintended consequence.

    After seeing Mr. George-William’s interview I am definitely inclined to check out the UTW.

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