Well. Monday came. And I made bank.
But you, passenger, probably don’t know what I’m talking about, eh? Let’s put it in reverse. Take a ride to the week before last… Your driver was one of about a thousand, or so, of San Francisco’s finest hacks to get alerted via IM (at exactly 5:01pm on a Wednesday night) that “in the spirit of customer service,” the powers at the privately held Cabulous taxi hailing-app were giving four days notice of our expulsion from the app.
After eight years of working the loaner Android floated me by the company some three Cabulous CEOs ago, on a good day, this app has grown to account for up to about half of my gross receipts, and about a third of my rides rolling Citizen’s Cab #1015. And a thousand drivers is about half of The City’s fleet. (These days.)
That is half of SF’s taxi drivers, like me, who were told that come Monday, they would not be there just around the corner, as has come to be expected, to serve the thousands of working San Franciscans conscientious of where they spend their dollars, as well, those less conscientious who just want a safe, insured ride to their doctor’s or work, from a professional who knows where they’re going. An, um, “professional” who doesn’t mistake the pedestrian steps at the Church and Market Safeway for the new, disruptive, rideshares-only exit from the parking lot. (Dude, there’s no WAY GPS told you your Camry was making it down those steps!)
And, like me, after years of cultivating the Cabulous app, those one thousand struggling drivers have grown completely dependent on this single, private sector tech company’s solvency; not to mention, on continued sane and mature business decisions made by its revolving door ownership.
Anyway, I’ve probably already lost my mom/editor with all of this, and only a few paragraphs in. She likes the crazy people stories, and the feel good redemption rides, pictures of koala bears nursing orphaned kangaroos and shit. And I suspect that a great majority of you five, my regular passengers, agree completely with my ma. Yes, I’ve written before about how my motivation for putting out these reports is keeping in touch with my aging mother, living back east in D.C. But you long-time riders might recall the first taxi story I ever wrote; after violating every traffic infraction in San Francisco ZOOMING home from day one class at Rose’s Taxi Driver Institute, stop signs, pedestrians and cyclists be damned. There was a head on collision, with a compulsion, BURSTING at the gasket, you might say. And I HAD to IMMEDIATELY get home to my laptop, with memory still fresh, to document the total absurdity that was Rose’s class. And to boot, to document the feelings I was having after the suddenly WAY more real, realization of the totally absurd life for which I had just signed up, which Rose’s cab school would portend.
Oh, right. Monday.
To make this short. (Okay, yeah. That ship has sailed.) I was feeling pretty erratic, to put it mildly, in the wake of the Cabulous announcement. And (not alone, mind you), I began full-time freaking out about my no longer imminent, but palpably PRESENT career DOOM!
So, I went off in a way too long cab report, documenting all the bad human stuff I’d found myself doing over city streets over the course of those subsequent Thursday and Friday cab shifts. (Post Cabulous’ Wednesday IM of mass destruction.)
And yeah, ma was pretty disappointed with all the freak out, references to blood, capital letters and exclamation points – peppered liberally with extreme expressions of vitriol. (Hey, wait. Don’t I ALWAYS go overboard on the exclamations and CAPS!?) Most egregious for ma, however, was the Sackrilege of writing yet another in a recent trend of “boring” reports, about (GASP!) ME!
So, I shelved the week before last’s cab report, which was entitled ‘Crazy Legs Howard (And, The End)‘. A report I did NOT intend to be a diary entry, just my usual answering the call of “perverse journalism,” this time to document the SF taxi industry’s apocalypse… by its OWN hand! A few days later, I tried to make up for it by posting an oldie-but-goodie, per ma. But then, I had second thoughts, after realizing that this IS a BIG FUCKING DEAL in SF!!! And, it IS cab report-worthy. And then, I had a passenger, direct from GOD! Ain’t no other way to see it. Yeah, if you made it this far, there actually is a ride to relay this week. Only one more paragraph to go until we reach your destination, passengers. And thank you, for riding Citizen’s Cab…
Oh, right, right. Monday. You see, ‘Crazy Legs’ had a running theme about the stark reality of which I was facing… excuse me, a San Francisco cab driver was facing, what with the out of the blue prospect that he had only two cab shifts to go before hitting a HARD wall, and then, well…. WHAT THEN??
“What THE HELL am I going to DO, COME MONDAY!?!” found itself popping up a lot.
“Cha-ching! – 1240 Hayes. Matt.”
My Cabulous taxi hailing-app rings to life on the supplied Android dedicated to it, again.
And I have no choice, but to ‘Accept.’
Monday, all but TWO of my rides was a mobile-to-mobile Cabulous hail. I was running crazy with back to back rides ALL DAY LONG. And yeah, I made bank. It was old school. Still, I can’t help but feel bad for all of those drivers locked out of the app, with the coming of Monday.
The private ‘San Francisco Taxi Drivers Group’ on Facebook was buzzing with the news, drama, conspiracy theories, and unfortunately, some not-so-conspiracy theories. It turns out that the owner of what was DeSoto Cab (SF’s oldest color scheme) bought the Cabulous app back in December. And this is bad.
A while ago, DeSoto changed their name to advertise the app, God forbid Cabulous break its ten year record of not once having ever shelled out so much as a dime for a radio, TV or print ad. It’s all been word of mouth. And DeSoto’s bright red cabs pushing the brand. Many local riders are actually pretty interested in the nitty-gritty of the cab universe in SF, and have been confused about whether Cabulous is just a private sector app, or owned by DeSoto’s infamous Hansu Kim. I had always clarified that DeSoto and Cabulous were distinct, despite the easy confusion. And now, I must update my spiel.
I have long been leery of having so much of my cab income owed to a private sector tech company with such a high turnover rate of management, ownership, and developers. To say nothing of their 13.2% cut of each of my Cabulous rides. I’ve long awaited the morning when the app just doesn’t connect to their servers, and this is how San Francisco finds out that Cabulous has gone under. I’ve always yapped about how the MTA, which oversees SF’s taxis and public transit, should come out with an app. (That doesn’t take a 13.2% bite.)
So, over Cabpocalypse weekend, there was a little pushed caveat gaining attention from Hansu’s IM. He was shutting out drivers for any color schemes not signing up to be a “Cabulous Partner.” This, with no explanation of what this means. It should be noted that San Francisco cab drivers are actually subcontractors, and can work with more than one color scheme. And again, the thousand plus drivers who were told they’d be locked out come the Monday before last, had each been individually given a phone to run the app.
Hansu did send out a follow-up IM listing Cabulous’ current “partners”; notably, about four of the tiniest cab companies in SF. And it was lost on none in the taxi driver Facebook group that there have been BIG changes over at Yellow Cab. It was bought after two bankruptcies, in a fire sale. (No, not on account of Uber. On account of some bad drivers killing and maiming one too many litigious passengers.)
Well, it turns out Yellow’s new owner, Chris Sweis, has ties to the SF taxi industry. And he is well respected by all in the community. (Well, ALMOST all.) And Chris just bought Luxor Cab, and Citiwide Taxi, two of SF’s other largest color schemes, and has big plans to push Yellow’s archaic YoTaxi app in a big way.
Aside: I’ve never used YoTaxi, or even seen it. But I’ve heard independent jokes from Cabulous passengers that the download comes packaged with a with a bonus game of Pong.
In any event, it didn’t take Facebook long to figure that the only possible reason Hansu would take such drastic measures, as BADLY screwing over half of SF’s drivers, and leaving a profitable and devoted Cabulous ridership high and dry, to now wait in excess of fifteen minutes for a taxi from a drastically culled pool, where reliably in the past, a cab would be at your door within five. The reason they surmise: Idiocy.
Okay, I jest: It’s some misguided sense of protectionism.
The only thing worse than a private sector fly-by-night tech company commanding the bulk of your taxi livelihood, is a private sector color scheme owner with a reputation for slashing and burning his way to the top of the industry acting on, well, idiocy.
Oh. How am I still on the app? Citizen’s Cab’s Russian manager, Ivan, acquiesced right quick over the weekend and jumped onboard to become a Cabulous partner. Although, he’s been real cagey about what this means, exactly.
Ivan, “A-lex! A-lex! You wait. You see. This will be fine. You wait. Jus you be patient, A-lex!”
Many are concerned that this pointless power move against the new Yellow/Luxor/Citiwide behemoth – which really just shoots the entire SF taxi industry in the foot, and has already begun sending passengers back to Uber and Lyft in droves – is blackmail to force their “partners” to replace their fleets meters with the proprietary Cabulous “soft meter.” A cheap smartphone that acts as the sole equipment and meter for ALL of your rides, street hail, dispatch, mobile-to-mobile, whatever. These soft meters have long been deployed in Hansu’s fleet-formerly-known-as-DeSoto.
Can you imagine the bulk of San Francisco’s taxis dependent on a proprietary smartphone for even the metering of a street hail? And subject to the whims of a man who just pulled what Hansu pulled on a thousand drivers, and thousands more passengers? The man didn’t even send out an email alerting the Cabulous clientele of their new bold move to affect greater customer service! These are generally good, mindful people, who gush to no end about how much they LOVE Cabulous. So, yeah. Let’s fix it. And they all have NO clue what’s going on! As soon as I drop a fare, “Cha-ching! Cha-ching!” Half the time, the passenger is not TOO far. Half the time… The other half of the time, I ‘Accept’ that call fifteen minutes away, out of a pained sense of duty to the Cabulous ridership. And understandably, as left in the dark about Hansu’s new vision for customer service, and very much accustomed to no more than a five to eight minute wait for their daily ride, invariably, they cancel.
So, I already spoke to Cabulous’ tech support in India over the big weekend, for guidance on tweaking my current Cabulous phone to work during the transition. (And spent more than an hour afterwards that Saturday fielding multiple return calls from Raj, eager for my help in troubleshooting a significant bug in their transition software, which I had quickly realized and alerted them to: You could not change the medallion number.) This tweak is just temporary, as mentioned, though. This, until Citizen’s Cab and their other new “partners” receive Cabulous phones dedicated to each of its fleet’s taxis. As opposed to phones entrusted to individual drivers, regardless of color scheme, the likes of yours truly. Hence, the idiocy. Yellow, Citiwide, Luxor already HAD drivers working Hansu’s new acquisition, and feeding him 13.2% from each ride, in addition to working their YoTaxi app. For a cab driver these days, it’s all of the above. In any event, we can only guess what “fees” will rolling out from the new Cabulous. One thing is to be sure, however; they will be rolling DOWN hill.
To be fair, in the area of communication, I guess there WAS that interview Hansu did with the San Francisco Examiner Cabpocalypse weekend, where he rattled out some vague nonsensical talking points about the whole deal. That’s right, you got it: Customer service.
Aside: While buried, and rarely used, Cabulous does have a rating system embedded in the app. And there is also such a thing as email support tickets to the company, should one have a complaint to lodge outside of a driver’s color scheme and/or the MTA.
Oh, Hansu DID make some additional news, with the mention that when he bought the app back in December, despite that it’s actually a profitable enterprise, the then VC owners were well into the process of folding the company. (Presumably, to go chase unicorns.)
Did I mention the MTA needs to come up with an app?
Oh, yeah. Matt. 1240 Hayes. Cha-ching! and all… I’m out front, and I’ve just hit ‘Call Passenger’ on my soon to be retired Cabulous supplied Android. And I know this rider. And some of you likely at least know OF him.
And the plot thickens…
In short order, a good looking guy with long grey hair and a beard, early 50’s, strolls out towards Citizen’s Cab #1015 all calm, cool and collected in a pretty fashionable, if not down to earth, suit. “Matt” eases into the back of 1015, for his third ride with me over the last few months.
And in his usual soft spoken gravitas and direct eye contact via the rear view, Mr. Gonzalez, former San Francisco Supervisor, 2003 Green Party candidate for San Francisco Mayor – in a quite close race against Gavin Newsom, 2008 vice presidential running mate to Ralph Nader, and current chief attorney in the San Francisco Public Defender’s office – and having recently made national news, again, for defending and winning the acquittal of undocumented felon Jose Ines Garcia Zarate against the charge of murder in the shooting death of 32 year-old Kate Steinle on a touristy San Francisco pier, back in 2015 (WHEW!), um, like I said, starts to offer up his destination in his usual soft spok- ah, screw it.
Driver, interjecting, “7th & Brannan. The Public Defender’s office, right?”
And with a deep, deliberate gaze via the rear view, Matt pauses, as if contemplating, before returning with a measured, “Yes.”
I’ve been a casual fan of Matt Gonzalez for some years. Although, admittedly, I’m not as steeped in local SF politics as I am with national issues. But, I dig the Green Party. And sure, high taxes, liberal social policies and sensible regulation. You know, the social contract. Hell, even if I weren’t a bum living off the dole, I’d be for all that. (So long as my taxes didn’t go to “modernize” our nuclear arsenal.)
Anyway, I very much appreciate law, and lawyers. It’s chess, at the highest level. The first time I drove Matt Gonzalez, also via Cabulous, it was right after he got Garcia Zarate off for murder. It was clear to anyone with 3/5ths of a brain that dude was not guilty of premeditated murder. (Which, of course, precludes a hardcore roughly 33% of the country.) The gun Zarate was holding fired at the ground, ricocheted, and then traveled about 78 feet before hitting and killing Kate Steinle. I’m not advocating for him in any way here, but it should be noted that Zarate is only a felon due to his reentering the country after being deported, repeatedly. Totally tragic, her death. And a fascinating case.
Driver, Esq., “Hey, I won’t ask you if you really believe Zarate came across that stolen BLM ranger’s gun by coincidence, wrapped in a shirt under the bench he just happened to be sitting on. But, can I ask you something about the case?”
Gonzalez, Esq. shoots a mindful gaze into the rear view, and pauses, before, he answers, “Sure.”
Driver, Esq., “So, clearly, this was NOT premeditated murder. But why didn’t the jury return a verdict of manslaughter?”
Gonzalez, Esq., “Well, man…” Adding, “There was no element of negligence here.” Continuing, “To be guilty of the offense of manslaughter, my client would have had to have known that it was a gun wrapped in the shirt he picked up.”
Driver, “Wow! Of course! That’s awesome! Well, sorta.”
Driver, digressing, “Hey! Don’t think I’m crazy. But I don’t know if you know anything about all of the drama going down with Cabulous right now, or if you’ve been having a hard time catching a cab in the last couple of days. But I’m in a private SF taxi driver group on Facebook, and a couple of people swear that you partnered with Hansu Kim back in December to buy half of the stake in the Cabulous app.” Then, Driver jumps to qualify this question, feeling a little stupid for even asking, “I mean, cab drivers are an eclectic bunch! You hear a lot of-”
Gonzalez, leaning forward in his seat, and cutting me mid-sentence to interject, “Yeah. It’s true. I’ve owned half of Cabulous along with Hansu since December.”
I told you the plot thickens!
Driver, nervous and bursting at the gaskets, “Dude! Uh, do you mind if we have a frank discussion about all that’s going on with this right now? I mean, wow. You guys really dropped a bomb with that IM last Wednesday!”
Gonzalez, “Sure, man. But you should know, we did this to save the cab industry. And make it better. The previous owners were making money with Cabulous, it’s profitable. But it just wasn’t enough to satisfy VC guys. They were in the process of closing up shop, man.”
Driver, “Wow. I’ve always worried about that very thing! Cabulous accounts for about half of my rides. And just about my only airports! Actually, that was BEFORE those thousand or whatever drivers were kicked off the app this week. Yesterday, I was busy all day long headed from one order to another, with no chance to take a flag, even if I wanted! Only TWO of my rides were NOT Cabulous hails!” Driver, adding, “So, as a single dad living in The City, rent control, and working this app over the last eight years, you can just imagine what it was like to get an IM saying, in effect, that I had just four days left to drive a cab.”
Gonzalez, “Look, man. We’re going to make it better. Better for the passengers. Better for the drivers. Fuck. Those drivers over at Yellow have been fucking it all up, stacking rides when they’re en route to a Cabulous order. Just give us time, man. Just give us time. We might lose a couple of passengers in the short term. But after they see how it’s gotten better, they’ll be back.”
I check the rear view, trying to gauge dude’s deal, while trying not to scowl in bemusement.
Driver, “Dude! What are you thinking! People LOVE Cabulous! My passengers gush about to me ALL DAY LONG! And you guys just pulled the rug out from under a thousand plus drivers already borderline suicidal, scratching to make a living. And with more and more becoming homeless. I mean, look at all the drivers defaulting on their $250K medallion loans from the SF Federal Credit Union. Who, as I’m sure you know, is now suing The City over unleashing Uber RIGHT after contracting with them to provide those loans! This is the last thing we needed in the taxi biz. Shooting ourselves in the foot. Again!
I mean, what do you think all those people who were used to easily booking a cab and having it arrive within minutes are going to do when the cab they just hailed is clear across town? Man, I’ve been getting a whole lot more orders fifteen minutes out, and accepting them! Predictably, only to have them cancel within seconds. This thing wasn’t broke, man. Why fix it?”
Jeez. Matt’s parroting Hansu’s “customer service” b.s. He CAN’T really believe that! Ugh. Even if this isn’t about Cabulous going to war with the new owner of Yellow, et al, it just further proves that these people, the PRIVATE SECTOR, can’t be allowed to be THIS involved in my livelihood. Hell, in a city’s infrastructure! Which is what taxis are. (Just ask a paratransit. Or the last victim of “dynamic pricing.”)
Gonzalez, “I dunno, man. I haven’t had any trouble getting rides. It doesn’t seem like a big problem, from my experience. Trust me. Once we get rid of all the bad drivers fucking up the system, and more color schemes get on board as partners, it’ll be good for everyone.”
Driver, “Dude, Cabulous already HAS a rating system baked into the app. Granted, it’s buried, and no one ever uses it. But you could bring it to the fore. And there’s always emailed support tickets, too. If someone has a real problem with a driver. Aside from accountability with a driver’s company, AND the MTA!
I’m tellin’ ya, man. I’m on the street. Passengers are having a hard time getting picked up, already. It was predictable as hell. I’m seeing cancellations. And you KNOW that they’re turning right around and hailing an Uber!
I don’t get it. You said the company was profitable. On what planet is it a good business idea to cut out a thousand plus options for rides for your clientele, all giving you 13.2% of their take, and pissing off a significant number of both drivers AND passengers in the process?
Seriously, the passengers have no clue what’s going on. They’ve come to rely on that supply of cabs and pretty confused right now about what’s happened to Cabulous. You guys didn’t even tell the passengers anything about it. You really need to send out an email. Dude, SEND out an email.”
Matt ignores my imploring him about communicating with the app’s users, and has channeled the heat from this “frank” discussion into an indignant tirade about Yellow. (Not that anyone writing this report is immune to that kind of thing.)
Gonzalez, “Fuck, man. Think about it! This app cost millions to develop and maintain. We went to Yellow with some very basic requests for working out a deal, and they wouldn’t even agree to playing ball on the simplest of terms. They’re so stuck on their YoTaxi app, that they wouldn’t even agree to putting Cabulous stickers in the windows of their cabs!
Look, we’re trying to save the industry. We’re trying to be the city’s central dispatch. And we paid a lot of money for a private business to do right by everyone. Fuck, man! You tell me what private business pays all that money, just to hand off their clients FOR FREE to their competitors! DeSoto drivers have been losing all their business to other drivers on the platform, man.”
Well, I guess we can move past that whole “customer service” show now. Confirmation!
Driver, “Dude, Cabulous already IS the city’s central dispatch! And it’s been working, for years! I don’t get it. You said the app was profitable, even if only so-so. Nobody’s getting anything for free here. You guys get 13.2% out of us drivers, and a dollar from every passenger. And you get most of the city’s taxis at the disposal of your clients. What am I missing?
And it’s not like you spend any money on advertising. Do you think you could maybe break the app’s unbroken record of keeping it a government secret? I have never once in my time driving a taxi seen a radio, TV, or print ad for Cabulous. It’s all been word of mouth.
And man, what’s up with these debit cards that I hear are going to be rolled out soon, to replace our direct deposits? Are we going to be seeing fees to access our money, now? This isn’t going to make it very easy to write a check for rent.”
Suddenly, the back seat gets quiet.
I check the rear view…
Gonzalez, “Look, man. Advertising costs money. REAL money. I gotta tell you, we just can’t justify that expense right now. And I don’t know anything about the debit card thing. I’m not involved in that. But, I can tell you that we’ve been having serious issues with trying to get the banks on board to work with us. None of those guys will have anything to do with anything taxi related right now.
Like you said, the Credit Union got burned on the medallion program, and now none of them can understand that we’re an entirely different business model.”
Driver, “Wow. That’s messed up, about the banks. I don’t see how they could be that obtuse. Anyway, no offense, but I do not trust ANY private sector middle man to look out for my blue collar livelihood.
I’ve always said it, from the very beginning of all this, that the MTA should come out with an app.”
Gonzalez, for the first time, all at once breaks from his sober demeanor, to quite genuinely, and whole heartedly bust out laughing at me. For thinking that this could ever happen? Or for even remotely thinking that it would be a good idea to have the MTA in charge of a taxi app? I am not sure which. (But I must admit, his genuine amusement at what he clearly thought to be an absurdity DID make me feel pretty green. And not in a party way. If nothing else, this guy definitely knows every one of the ins and outs of San Francisco politics, and its bureaucracy.)
Gonzalez, “HA! Man, that will NEVER happen! The MTA will NEVER put out an app! HA!! Man! They don’t have the money, they don’t have the talent. An app takes millions to develop. And the main reason that the MTA keeps a cap on the number of taxis is to force people onto MUNI when they can’t catch a cab! It’s NOT happening, man. HA!”
Driver, defeated, mindlessly blurts out all that he can think to,
“Dude! I thought you were a Socialist!”
The steely point of which pierces, palpably, a fatal swath DIRECTLY through the red, red heart of one Matthew Edward Gonzalez, Esquire, as he almost chokes on his laughter, to lurch forward from his seat to vehemently decry, defend, and DEMAND vindication!
Gonzalez, “I AM a SOCIALIST!”
You know, the MTA DOES have an app for MUNI routes, with real time arrival and departure information. I don’t know how good it is, and I suspect that they’re not taking payments through it, for monthly Fast Passes, Clipper transit cards, and the like. But, maybe they are? Anyway, that’s not nothing.
Anyhow, with this, we pull up on the Public Defender’s office down in SOMA, across from the county jail and courthouse, at 850 Bryant. Matt’s drop. And with all the lively back and forth, I forgot to ask my new, de facto boss what he knows about actually PAYING his drivers. No rhyme or reason can be extrapolated from the piecemeal, erratic, and infrequent direct deposit Cabulous payments to drivers like me, however few of us are left. Currently, Cabulous owes me around $500 for rides going back over two weeks.
Lord, I hope they don’t throw it all at me at once, a month down the road, on some Kim Kardashian prepaid debit card.
Man, the MTA needs to come out with an app, damn it.
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Photo by Alex SacK