Saturday, November 21, 2015

I Knew I Would Never Drive a Taxi Again

Whenever someone claims that it’s not about the money, you know the chances are that really, it is. And I’d be lying if I said my decision to switch away from driving a taxi and start driving for Lyft had nothing to do with the amount I was earning. But money was only part of my decision—and probably not in the way you might think.

Instead it was one part of a culmination of events that led me to renounce everything I’d said before, to become a traitor, a scab, and to betray many people I’d come to know in the cab business.

I wasn’t the first, and I surely wouldn’t be the last. But that didn’t make me feel any better about it. There were people who I’d come to care about, good people, people that I counted among my genuine friends, who would be deeply disappointed by my treachery. Perhaps it had simply taken me way too long — and even a stint in rehab — to finally accept that I couldn’t spend my life trying to live up to other people’s expectations. And after all, isn’t that what loyalty is really all about?

When I first started driving a taxi, Saturday nights were the most coveted shift of the week. Typically, only medallion owners and drivers with the most seniority got them. Once in a while, if you were lucky or willing to wait around for several hours, then a driver like me — with only a few years under his belt — could get a cab to drive on a Saturday night, and the chance to make $400, or even $500, in a single shift.

Nowadays, however, with Uber and Lyft cars flooding the streets, it’s become the hardest shift to fill. It’s not uncommon for a Saturday night taxi to go one, or even two hours at a stretch without a single fare. What used to be exciting is now something drivers dread: I certainly know that driving around empty in a sea of vacant taxis, while watching people all around me hop into their Uber and Lyft rides, left me feeling desperate and frustrated.

It used to be that late at night, and not just on Saturdays, I could park my cab right outside the door of the Rickshaw Stop in San Francisco — a nightclub just off the beaten path. Excited to see an available taxi waiting, people exiting the club would jump right in, one fare after the other, it was my spot. But soon, people leaving the club began waving me off. “No thanks,” they’d say, as they pulled out their iPhones and waited five or 10 minutes, sometimes even in the rain, until a car with one of those ridiculous pink moustaches, or a glowing blue “U” on it would pull up and drive them off into the night.

I didn’t get it.

I’m right here.

I’m ready to go.

All I got was “No thanks,” from person after person after person. I felt dejected. It made no sense to me.

I got a reprieve from my frustrations when I was offered a part-time job in the cab company’s operations office. Back then, the phones were still constantly ringing, and dispatch was busy with customers calling for cabs. The money was good, and the shifts were shorter than on the road. Best of all though, a job in the office usually came with the ability to get a cab — a good cab — immediately, whenever I wanted. My days of waiting around for hours just so that I could go to work were finally over. Or so I thought.

As it turned out, drivers with better or more longstanding connections were getting put out in taxis ahead of me, and I was still being made to wait. Except now the wait was even longer because more and more drivers were fighting for shifts, and for good cabs to drive. Meanwhile, the day drivers were making things even worse by keeping their cabs out longer, attempting to make up for their falling incomes. Every hour, hell, every minute that I waited, I could feel the crisp $20s just slipping through my grasp.

The topic being discussed among the various huddles of angry cabbies waiting there with me was always the same: Uber and Lyft. One driver heard that the mayor’s daughter had invested in Lyft. Another had heard that the mayor had exclaimed, “Uber has finally solved San Francisco’s taxi problem!” I didn’t know if either was true, but it was no secret that Mayor Ed Lee was a vocal supporter of “the sharing economy.” He led visiting politicos on tours through Uber’s headquarters, and had even officially declared July 13th as “Lyft Day” in San Francisco. I couldn’t think of a bigger slap in the face.

Still, as much as I hated Uber and Lyft—and as much as I hated our mayor—I knew that none of them were going away anytime soon. I continued to see Lyft, and particularly Uber, as illegal bullies that were flaunting the law. The whole rideshare premise, that these were just regular folks, “citizen drivers,” who just happened to be going your way and would give you a ride, was complete bullshit. It reminded me of the last line in The Sun Also Rises: “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” No, call it what you want, but this was deregulation.

Even so, as I looked down my nose at these intruders, and their over-reliance on GPS to find their way through the maze of my city, I found myself feeling conflicted. While they were already doing essentially the same job as me, I knew these rideshare drivers would never have considered actually becoming taxi drivers, nor did they think of themselves in this way. Things just weren’t that simple. There was something else, something other than the money, that kept them coming back out here day after day, and night after night.

So when my fellow cab drivers complained that “Uber and Lyft are stealing my passengers!” I’d reply, “They aren’t stealing anything — we’re giving them away.”

I would argue that every time they refused to accept a credit card, and every time they refused to take passengers to their homes in the Sunset, or the Richmond Districts, they were only creating more Uber customers.

But they just looked at me like there was something growing out of my head.

I began to sense a chasm widening between us. Even while they could feel everything slipping away, they continued behaving as though there would always be more customers, more tourists, more conventioneers, to replace the ones we were losing. In their eyes—in their cab driver’s eyes—the passengers were there for them, and not the other way around. It had always been that way. Why should anything change now?

I remember imagining the person who decided to chop down the last remaining tree on Easter Island, and in doing so cued the collapse of an entire civilization. I became convinced; it had to have been a cab driver.

by Jon Kessler, On Demand |  Read more:
Image: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times