Taxi driving: conferences + tourists = seasonal demand

My shifts were busy and lucrative this past weekend. Two big conferences were in town: the Apple WWDC and some sort of diabetes convention. Two special events — the Haight Ashbury Street Fair and the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon — also brought in many regional visitors.

  • Sunday and Monday earnings were far above average; I earned a bit above $200 both days.
  • I heard another cabbie complaining about the radio with the cashier. I understood the source of his anger, but also realized that the cashier couldn’t do anything about it. Maybe the cabbie should start a blog.

    Here’s the deal: an analogue radio dispatch system is imperfect. (I’ve written about analog radio dispatching before, look about halfway down this page.) But, also imperfect is the computerized* dispatch system used by the top two companies cab companies by fleet size, Yellow and Luxor. While I’ve never driven a computer dispatch cab, I still acknowledge that computerized dispatch lacks some of the key advantages of analog radio dispatch:

    • Analog radio dispatch is usually hands free unless you’re keying the mic to make a call, whereas computerized dispatch requires driver input to review calls, see calls in other areas, etc.
    • Analog radio frees cab operators’ eyes for the most important task: driving. Computerized dispatch requires operators to look at a small, poorly backlit, dot-matrix LCD screen while roaming the road.
    • Analog radio allows cab operators to passively receive data about cab demand at all parts of the City. Computerized dispatch only pages orders within a smaller geographic area, darkening a cab driver’s radar of demand for cabs in other City neighborhoods. Many times I’ll hear about a large party with many cab pickups across town that nets me a nice run (or even two)!
    • Analog radio requires significantly less fixed and per-vehicle capital outlay and maintenance costs.

    The most common imperfection with analog radio is actually a mix of technology failure and dispatcher error: not being heard (“read”) by the dispatcher when checking-in for a radio order.

    Usually this happens when my cab is beyond significant hills such as in the Marina or North Beach, where my lower power FM transmitter doesn’t quite reach back home at dispatch. But, sometimes a stressed dispatcher doesn’t (or can’t) take the time to acknowledge every cab that checks-in, especially when the City is slow and too many cabbies are desperate for orders.

    At these times, like that driver at the cashier window, I get really pissed off at the imperfections of the analog radio. The best strategy I’ve found for this is to yell really loudly in the cab. Choice phrases include, “DAMMIT!”, “F**K!”, or yelling the dispatcher’s name very loudly. Doing so actually brings a smile to my face and lets me continue hunting for fares.

    Some drivers simply take the order even if they weren’t properly checked; I don’t do this. If I’m really desperate for orders, and I’m very close to the call, I’ll radio the dispatcher to let them know I was probably the closest but wasn’t heard during check-in.

    *(Lingo check: the cab industry uses the colloquialism ‘computerized’ dispatch, whereas the mobile IT industry uses the term Mobile Data Terminal which also describes the computers used by police and other mobile vehicles.)

  • I had a few Frenchies in quick succession.

    I picked up a guy from the Castro who wanted to head to the Civic Center BART station. I feel comfortable now digging a bit deeper to optimize rides, so I found out he wanted to go to the airport and suggested heading to the 16th Street BART station which was closer for us, and closer to the airport for him.

    I can usually pick out even slight German or French accents and heard a tint of French on this guy’s voice, so I asked if he was French. He was and tested my French with a few questions. He loved San Francisco but work requires him to live in LA. He and I agreed that SF is the closest to Europe one may find in the USA.

    He was from the south of France which sparked my interest as an old friend from Scotland is also. When I visited my French friend and his family I had a blast playing a game similar to bocce ball, but I couldn’t for the life of me remember the real name. My French friend kept referring to it as ‘boule’ (ball). (This caused a great deal of translation humor as he kept suggesting in English that we go play with his balls.) My passenger revealed the mystery game: Pétanque.

    I really appreciated the passenger bringing back those fun memories.

  • I came across an older guy at Sutter and Leavenworth looking very confused hailing a cab. With very broken English he mentioned he and his daughter needed to get to Pier 33. His eyes lit up when I clarified Pier 33 in French. He seemed much more at ease as they piled in the cab and we headed up Leavenworth. Since my French is so bad now usually I’ll speak in basic English while the passengers speak in basic French. This worked out well.

    As we headed past the curvy portion of Lombard Street I offered to stop for pictures, but they had already walked the hill with cameras. A few blocks later the dad asked with a grin, “Well, maybe we can drive down it?” I laughed and readily accepted. I love driving down Lombard Street! Of course, it’s a great way to stretch a fare, but it’s also a beautiful street and I enjoy soaking up the view of our City through the eyes of visitors. I drove down Lombard safely but still quick enough that the rapid changes in centrifugal force from the tight turns was noticeable.

    I was honored that when we arrived at Pier 33 they felt comfortable asking me what was a fair tip. European foreigners aren’t always accustomed to tipping and sometimes won’t give me a tip at all, not out of spite but simply due to the lack of understanding of the importance of tipping toward my income. The fare was $10 and some change so I told them with a $20 to hand it to the driver and ask for $8 back if they had a good ride.

  • I took two Japanese girls to the Moscone Center for the keynote speech by Steve Jobs at the Apple WWDC. They were excited to hear about the new iPhone. I was amused when one answered their phone and said, “Mushi mushi!” I didn’t realize they actually said that in Japan, thought it was just kinda a joke.
  • I took a nice young lady to her event marketing job in SOMA. We talked about our jobs and making ends meet in the City. I realize that I make an erroneous assumption that my passengers always make more than I do. I told her my average take-home and she was surprised, saying it was significantly more (per hour) than she makes right now. I have to keep that in mind.
  • Tuesday was an odd day — the radio was very busy with constant radio calls, but they were spaced far across the City and above average traffic made it difficult to get to the calls quickly.

    As I was heading out on Market toward numerous radio calls in the Castro and Upper Market I ended up behind two other cabs from our company. I let them check-in first for the calls we were approaching, then I realized there were no more radio calls left in this direction! Crap!

    I decided to keep going a few more blocks to Market and Castro where street hails are common. I lucked out — two guys were hailing at a motel, heading out to the Oakland airport. We had a great conversation about everything from gay marriage to the hot Texas weather. They tipped me an insane $25 on top of the $50 fare. Thanks, guys.

  • On the busy Sunday after dropping in the outer Richmond I snaked back on Geary looking for Muni exiles or other street hails. Around 30th I found a guy in his late 20s emphatically hailing. I didn’t realize until a minute or so into the ride how drunk and high he was. It figured — he was heading toward the Haight Street Fair.

    My strategy for drunk folks, especially drunk AND high folks, is to maintain positivity during the entire ride. Laugh off insults or strange tangents and keep the conversation positive and upbeat. This seems to keep the passenger comfortable and minimize anger or uncomfortable feelings.

    This guy was really, really, really out of it. I’ve been there before too, so I understood that his thoughts didn’t connect very well to his speaking parts, so I accepted the odd ramblings as poor surface-level representations of his inner thoughts and feelings. This frame of reference allowed both of us to have a positive interaction.

  • When I dropped him at the Haight Street Fair I knew, knew, there were numerous street hails to be had in the area. But, I still left as fast as possible. Why?

    Traffic was awful. Haight was closed between Masonic and Stanyan, including all cross streets. True there were folks somewhere in the large area between Masonic and Stanyan, Waller and Page streets that needed a cab. But, to wait through traffic would take forever. It is in my self interest to leave as fast as possible and find other areas of town to get fares — like the nearby street-hail-heavy Castro or other radio orders in the area.

    This is a problem: my incentives push me to leave an area where folks need cabs. One possible solution: enforced, clearly publicized taxi stands in traffic accessible areas. If there were publicized taxi stands at either end of Haight (at Masonic or Stanyan) potential customers and cab drivers alike could dispense with time wasting hunting and find each other more easily. This would allow cab drivers to dash-in without getting caught up in the Waller/Page stalled traffic and dash-out. Just a thought.

  • I picked up three drunk Mexican guys around 6am Sunday morning. I was impressed at their ability to drink so late. Surely, I thought, they had finished their night shift as a bar back and had only been partying from 3 or 4am.

    While we stopped at a 7-11 for them to pickup more beer, one guy stayed behind. He looked pooped. He told me they had started at 5pm the day before. He was dead tired. But, his friends were still partying and he seemed to feel a strong duty to continue partying alongside. Wow.

  • I picked up a radio call in the deep Marina. I picked up a nice PR-type corporate guy and took him toward his downtown office. We decided against the Broadway tunnel as traffic was usually bad around 9am and there was construction which made it even worse.

    So, the only other main road was Bay which is a high capacity 4-lane road above Russian and Telegraph Hills. As we were stuck on Bay with slow, solid traffic traveling at an average of 10mph two parts of my brain were firing:

    • One part said, wow, this is pretty awesome. It’s a beautiful day in San Francisco. There are great views of the bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, the sky is blue, the wind blows with a nice cool tinge. I’m listening to NPR, driving in a world-class City. I’m paying rent, working on a website, doing what I please. It’s a beautiful day.
    • The other part was depressed: here we are, a world-class City and there is a traffic jam at 9am filled with single occupancy BMWs, Mercedes. Is this really the best transportation option the City can provide? Is this the best us humans can come up with?

      I thought back to the rail tunnel that once connected a streetcar from Jefferson at the Fisherman’s Wharf to the Marina District, heading under Fort Mason. Now it’s closed.

      Is there no modern transportation solution the City can provide that will provide >10mph average speed for its residents? Is this really a difficult situation to address? This isn’t rocket science. We can manage to put a lander on Mars to study for signs of life, send humans out to a man-made space station in Earth’s orbit, yet we can’t create reliable commute options to transport City residents the 3 miles from home to work at speeds greater than 10 mph?

      What a shame. Shame on the City, shame on the United States for its negligence to properly invest in non-personal-auto transportation options for its citizens, especially in the second most dense city in the USA. Now that oil is so expensive, our under investment in non-auto is glaringly clear.

      A solution? President Obama, you should create a next generation “New Deal” that reinvests in America’s aging transportation infrastructure. Our universities pump out amazingly skilled young people, only for them to be placed behind a desk shuffling papers. Put them to use fixing our dams, bridges, and creating real transportation options that don’t force the poorest of the poor to spend the highest percent of income on transportation. Will this cost money and increase debt? Yes! But this is a GOOD form of government spending that has positive future returns, unlike wars in foreign countries. [/rant]

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