What cabs really do

Don't deregulate cabs out of being the essential city service that they are

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tredmond@sfbg.com

EDITORS NOTES There are two ways to look at the taxicab industry in San Francisco: Either it's purely a business, out to serve customers with the products that are most profitable -- or it's part of the city's public transportation infrastructure, and thus subject to regulations that ensure all parts of the city are properly served.

If you take the first approach, then you're like the entrepreneurs who founded Lyft, Uber, Sidecar, and Tickengo. They offer a product that the market clearly wants -- rides that can be summoned with a smart phone and tracked by geolocation (no more "when the hell is that cab going to get here?"), with both drivers and passengers rated on a Yelp-like system.

The newcomers have no interest in the city's old-fashioned regulations, which really do, in some ways, date back to the days when cabs were buggies pulled by horses. They've got a business model, and they're going to follow it.

The problem here is that cabs are not just a business. (Housing isn't just a business, either; that's why we have, for example, rent control, eviction protections, and code enforcement.) Taxis are an essential part of the transit system in San Francisco. They backfill where buses and trains can't or don't go. They provide a lifeline for disabled people and seniors who need a ride, for example, to and from health-care appointments or supermarkets.

They are absolutely essential to the tourist economy, which is the city's biggest and most lucrative industry (tech is still far behind).

There are problems with this part of the transportation system, as there are problems with Muni and BART and airport shuttles. There need to be more cabs on the streets, particularly at busier times. The existing drivers and operators need better technology and a better dispatch system.

But taxi drivers -- the old, traditional type -- are required to pick up anyone and drive anywhere; they can't cherry pick the most attractive rides. They have to go through screening and training that ensures the public is safe.

They are, like many other utilities, almost a part of the public sector. There's a good reason for that. And it's what the city and the state regulators should be looking at.