Taxis reinvent themselves to be more like Lyft

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As this image from Lyft's Facebook page demonstrates, some drivers are true believers.

For all the (justified) grumbling about the business models of ridesharing services like Lyft and Uber, the so-called ridesharing revolution may prove to be a catalyst for a taxi industry overhaul.

“We’re adding hundreds more taxis, and our board has approved regulations for each vehicle to provide real-time locational information,” San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency spokesperson Paul Rose told me in an interview yesterday.

“One of our goals is to move forward with making the data available to our customers to hail a cab with an app,” Rose added, referencing a plan unveiled by the transit agency several weeks ago. Faced with stiff competition from random vehicles adorned with garish pink mustaches, the taxi industry is taking a stab at evolution, or at least imitation.

This week’s issue of the Guardian includes a story by journalist and part-time Lyft driver Josh Wolf, exposing a catch-22 facing Lyft drivers seeking full-coverage auto insurance. On our Politics Blog, reporter Joe Fitzgerald highlights a similar question that surfaced around ridesharing after an Uber driver’s involvement in a terrible accident.

The question of who foots the bill after someone gets crippled in a rideshare wreck is one of many accompanying the rise of unregulated app-connected cabs. Customers hailing a car with Uber have nowhere to turn in the event of a bad encounter, in contrast with the SFMTA’s complaint system for monitoring registered cabbies.

The SFMTA receives 100 to 120 cab-related complaints each month, and requires the city’s 311 information hotline info to be posted in every registered vehicle. “We follow up with every incident,” Rose said. “Results range from addressing or notifying the driver, to the very extreme – a revocation of a permit.”

To be a cab driver right now, paying off the pricey medallion they must purchase in order to operate while oblivious new transplants rake in the cash without following the same set of rules, must be infuriating.

At the same time, let’s be honest here. There’s a reason people are ditching conventional cabs and climbing into cars with random strangers who may be beckoned with the tap of a smartphone. And it has nothing to do with passengers’ sentiments about government regulation or newly minted tech millionaires.

Head over to Yelp (sorry, but it’s instructive) and read the comments yourself: Services like Lyft, Uber, and Sidecar are garnering rave reviews (Homobiles actually seems to have won the most ardent fans of all), while Yelpers use the online forum for virtual venting sessions to describe their frustrating taxi experiences. Maybe it’s a skewed sample, but there seem to be lot of people out there who were left languishing while waiting for a cab, and they’re pissed. No wonder Silicon Valley investors think it’s a good idea to dump $60 million into some faux-taxi scheme lacking clarity on even the basic question of insurance.

Wolf wrote about his experience as a Lyft driver; here’s my personal anecdote as a taxi patron. I called for a cab on a recent weekday and it never showed. When I phoned again to ask where it was, a robotic voice intoned, “an error has occurred,” and then the line went dead. Twice. When I dialed a second company, the dispatcher told me flat out that there were no cars close by. He suggested I just call someplace else, because he couldn’t help. 

Fail.

The taxi industry lags far behind the lightning-speed reality many Bay Area residents have come to inhabit, but if it weren’t for the competition, they might not have any incentive to change.

Rideshare services might be your quintessential rogue tech companies backed by nauseating sums of venture capital, but at the end of the day, people also want taxi service that does not suck. The Lyft drivers I’ve met tend to be people like Wolf – young, idealistic, bent on pursuing a creative passion despite the city’s high cost of living, and grateful for flexible work hours that make it possible to follow that dream and still make rent.

With that, here’s a sappy breakup letter composed to Yellow Cab by one Cori D., a Yelper. “I just don't love you anymore,” she writes. “You've left me waiting on the curb one too many times now without a word. No ‘I'll be a little late’ or ‘sorry you're late for work now.’ … So I'm leaving you. In fact, I'll confess that I've been cheating on you. Uber is just so handsome and reliable. … You might even say he bends over backward for me.”

True story? Or just some clever guerilla marketing orchestrated to plug Uber? Like most things pertaining to San Francisco’s information-age gold rush, it’s impossible to know for sure.