SF's cab industry is about to change dramatically — but no one knows how an experiment in selling permits will actually turn out
By Skyler Swezy
It's 10:20 p.m. on a recent Saturday night. Cab driver Dorian Lavender picks up a middle-aged couple outside the Gold Club, a strip joint in SoMa.
The couple is sharply dressed for a night out. After requesting the Mitchell Brothers' O'Farrell Theatre as their destination, the man brags to Lavender about having had sex with a stripper in one of the club's private rooms. His female companion smiles and says nothing.
"This is before I met her," the man explains. "We're swingers."
Minutes later, beneath the theater's flashing marquee, the man hands the driver a $20 bill for the $10 fare. "Keep the change," he says.
A few blocks away, a young couple flags the cab from the corner of Bush and Polk streets. They are talkative and entertained as Lavender tells them about the swingers. Ten minutes later, the meter reads $9.86. Apologizing, the young man hands him $11.
Lavender folds the bills into the cash-wad kept in his pocket.
"That's how it goes with cab driving," he says. "The nice couple tips 10 percent, the weird swingers tip 100 percent — and they were more interesting to talk to."
At 25, Lavender considers cab driving a great gig and survives working only three shifts a week. He enjoys the cash, freedom, and unpredictable encounters. He's even landed a few dates. A lot of career cabbies start driving for the same reasons. But after the excitement wears off, it turns out to be a tough job.
A typical cab driver in San Francisco makes less than $30,000 a year. Before drivers even start a shift, gate fees (covering the rental on the cab and the use of its permit, known here as a medallion), gas, and graft have already set them back close to $100. Bribes are commonplace in the industry, used to ensure weekend shifts, airport fares, and newer cars.
The industry offers no retirement plan or health coverage. In fact, the primary reason some people stay behind the wheel long after the thrill is gone is the promise that at some point, after maybe 15 years, an active driver becomes eligible for his or her own medallion. It costs almost nothing, and offers a tremendous benefit: drivers with medallions no longer pay high gate fees, get better shifts — and can lease out the permit when they're not working. The lease revenue alone can nearly double a driver's income.
Since 1978, medallions have been issued only to working drivers, and entirely on the basis of a waiting list that now numbers 3,200 names. New medallions become available when permit-holders retire, die, or are forced by disability to stop driving.
That system — and the entire cab industry — is about to change, profoundly. On Feb. 26, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency agreed to allow some permits to be sold on the open market to help close its huge budget deficit. When the dust settles and the implications of that decision become clear, life for cab drivers and passengers will be very different.
Some say the industry will be better; some say it will be much worse — but the truth is, nobody really knows.
Mayor Gavin Newsom's adminstration has talked about allowing the sale of permits for several years, but only in the past few months has Christine Hayashi, SFMTA's deputy director of taxi services, come up with a detailed plan.
It's aimed at addressing what some drivers call an unfair and flawed system. Permit-holders by law must drive a minimum number of shifts, and it they get hurt or just get too old to drive, they have to surrender their medallions, leaving them with no source of income.
It will also help SFMTA's budget — the city could sell unclaimed permits for big money and would get a cut of every other sale.
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