SF taxi driver supply continues to decline as Muni plans another ad campaign

SF taxi driver supply continues to decline as Muni plans another ad campaign
By Jessica Kwong @JessicaGKwong

• The SFMTA is entering an advertising campaign with Flywheel, a startup that helps users hail taxis through a mobile app.
A year after The City started running "Know What You're Getting Into" ads on Muni buses listing the advantages of riding traditional taxis over ride service upstarts, the cab industry continues to suffer the greatest shortage of drivers on the streets in at least a half-dozen years.

San Francisco's taxi industry has lost "a tremendous amount" of business to transportation network companies -- Uber, Lyft, Sidecar and similar mobile-app-based services -- and the number of cabdrivers has continued to decline, according to Chris Hayashi, who said she has never seen the driver numbers so low in the six years she has managed taxis for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.

The ad campaign contained the familiar "taxi" sign atop cabs and included a checklist of attributes that differentiate taxis from the newfangled ride services, such as drivers with extensive training, proper insurance and a formal dispute-resolution process.

The SFMTA plans to launch a similar campaign starting in June, Hayashi said, but this time it will be a partnership with Flywheel, an independent company whose app allows people to hail cabs. The message -- "Hail a Real Taxi Driver with Flywheel" -- will be distributed in 2,000 small ads lining the interior of buses and 30 large ads on the outside of buses. A video campaign is also in the works.

"It's not really about competition," Hayashi said. "It's about, ever since these TNCs started operating in San Francisco, we have raised concerns about their insurance, their drivers, their vehicles."

The ad is directed at passengers, but it also encourages taxi driver sign-ups.

The SFMTA does not have data on how many taxi drivers have left the industry in recent years, but Hayashi said cab companies have been complaining about losing business. The number of cabdrivers with permits in The City is at an all-time high of 8,000, but many are not using them.

Taxi-driving course attendance has fallen from between 40 and 50 people per class to about 20, but that's not a clear indicator because classes are now offered weekly, twice as often as before. And in many cases, Hayashi said, people take a class or two and end up with a mobile app-based ride service company. The number of drivers entering the taxi industry is not keeping up with the amount of cabs that should be going out on the street, she said.

"There is such a shortage of drivers, we are basically trying to empty the ocean with an eyedropper," Hayashi said. "So we may have recruited a few, but not nearly enough."

The SFMTA regulates the taxi industry and gains revenue from medallions and existing permit fees. Permit fees were recently waived for new drivers to boost recruitment.

At DeSoto Cab Co., which The City considers one of the best-run taxi companies, on average 20 percent of the 195-taxi fleet is not leaving the yard, said general manager Greg Cochran. He added that the decrease in drivers has "leveled off" at that number for the past six months in part because of the SFMTA's previous ad campaign and incentive program efforts.

"Every little bit helps," Cochran said. "But it's hard to know how long this work will continue to have an impact."

Meanwhile, ride service companies are seeing record recruitment.

"Driver applications and activations are at an all-time high," Sidecar spokeswoman Margaret Ryan told The San Francisco Examiner in an email. "We've seen consistent growth over the last year with 20 [times] growth in applications since this time last year."

Uber spokeswoman Lane Kasselman said in an email that driver sign-ups, like rider sign-ups, "are always strong and continue to grow." She said, "Drivers recognize that the Uber platform affords drivers -- including former taxi drivers -- unprecedented economic opportunity, flexibility and entrepreneurship."

One former taxi driver said he used to drive for DeSoto and Yellow Cab, but switched to Uber last year. Omar, who wouldn't give his last name, has been making the same money but on a schedule more convenient to him.

"I have a big family. I have to take my kids to school, then come back and work, and I have appointments," he said. "With Uber, I can choose my own shift."

If the bloodletting in the taxi industry continues, likely the first population to suffer is those who depend on wheelchair-accessible cabs, Hayashi said. Unlike "universally accessible" taxis, she said, transportation network companies can choose who they pick up based on the person's neighborhood or destination, the way they look and their passenger rating.

San Francisco has 100 permits for wheelchair-accessible taxis, a quarter of which are not in operation. An incentive program to drive wheelchair-accessible vehicles -- which included giving such cabdrivers priority at San Francisco International Airport -- was implemented in December, but it's too soon to determine whether it's alleviating service issues, Hayashi said.

"In the end, taxpayers are going to have to pay to boost the wheelchair service in one way or another if we can't keep the taxi system going," she said.