by Zusha Elinson, The Bay Citizen
San Francisco taxi drivers routinely flout the law by refusing rides, declining to take credit cards, charging unauthorized fees, speeding, smoking, and talking and texting on cellphones while driving, according to a year’s worth of passenger complaints reviewed by The Bay Citizen.
Taxis infested with bed bugs, drivers falling asleep at the wheel, rude behavior and difficulty getting a cab also were among the complaints. One patron reported that a cab driver allegedly stole his credit card number and used it to make purchases in Brazil. And two friends were upset when a driver offered them a 10 percent discount if they made out in front of him.
The gripes represent longstanding dissatisfaction with the San Francisco taxi industry. Disgruntled passengers registered 1,733 complaints with the city’s 311 complaint line from July 1, 2011, to June 30, 2012, a 13 percent increase from the previous fiscal year. The number was almost double the 900-complaint goal of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which regulates taxis.
The city agency, which has been criticized for lax oversight of the taxi industry, has four civilian investigators to police the 1,500 taxis on the street at any given time. Several cab company owners told The Bay Citizen that they had never heard the passenger complaints lodged against them.
Paul Rose, a spokesman for the Municipal Transportation Agency, said the taxi division has one person dedicated to investigating complaints made to 311.
“We investigate every serious allegation and get both sides of the situation and take appropriate action,” he said. “It’s something that we take very seriously.”
Rose could not provide the number of complaints that were investigated or the number of drivers or companies that were disciplined. He said that on average, five to seven complaints are investigated every day, with half resulting in some sort of disciplinary action.
The paucity of taxis and poor service has led to the rise of new rideshare services such as Uber and Lyft, whose apps allow patrons to hail drivers and pay conveniently on their smartphones, observers say. Regulators have cracked down on these high-tech outfits for sidestepping taxi regulations, including not carrying adequate insurance, but the services are popular with passengers.
“The reason those things are developing is because people are dissatisfied with the service they’re receiving,” said Jordanna Thigpen, former deputy director of San Francisco’s taxi commission and now a lawyer in private practice.
Over the years, advocates have called on San Francisco to enact a bill of rights to protect taxi passengers. In New York, for example, each cab posts a list of riders’ rights, such as a driver who does not use a cellphone while driving and the ability to pay by credit or debit card. Rose said the agency is drafting a bill of rights for San Francisco passengers and drivers that would be displayed on back-seat monitors but gave no time frame for its completion.
Several drivers and company owners said the complaints represent a small share of taxi rides in San Francisco. They blame the transportation agency for creating a climate in which rule breakers don’t get caught and say the city should develop a systemwide dispatch system or mobile app so passengers can easily get a cab.
Hansu Kim, owner of DeSoto Cab, said he would welcome a passenger bill of rights but defended the city’s taxis.
“Overall, the taxi industry as a whole gives pretty good service,” he said.
The complaints filed with 311 were spread across most of the city’s cab companies.
In February, a National Cab driver placed an anonymous call to 311 to report that some of the company’s cabs had bed bugs.
“Me and the other drivers are getting tons of bites,” he said. “The management has been informed, but they are doing nothing about the problem.”
Then he said: “I do not want to take bed bugs back to my home and family.”
Nader Shatara, a senior environmental health inspector for the city’s Department of Public Health, told The Bay Citizen that the city sent an inspector who found “one dead bed bug” and no “active infestation.” Shatara said National already had taken care of the pests with an over-the-counter product, but the inspector recommended professional pest control. Shatara said complaints about bed bugs in vehicles are rare.
National Cab President Dan Hinds said in an interview that customers should “absolutely not” worry about getting bed bugs. He said the cab was stripped down, fumigated and had its seats replaced. The bugs were found only in the one cab, he said.
“This is something that could happen to any cab in the city,” he said.
Hinds denied that National Cab management didn’t act in a timely manner, but he conceded that it took several steps to finally rid the cab of the pests.
Cellphones and cigarettes
In California, it is illegal to use a mobile phone without a hands-free device while driving. In San Francisco, 35 people filed complaints about drivers who were texting or talking on cellphones while driving.
One passenger said that during an April 13 ride in a taxi from North Beach to downtown, the Yellow Cab driver was talking on a cellphone without an earpiece, checking emails and “not paying attention to the road straight ahead of him.”
An Arrow Checker Cab driver “was annoyed with traffic” and “started speeding” and then started playing a game on his phone, another patron said. “I ended up getting out of the cab and throwing up,” the caller said.
There is no smoking allowed in taxis, but 25 drivers were caught smoking cigarettes, while three cabs smelled of marijuana smoke, according to peeved passengers.
When a patron taking a Town Taxi from the airport to South San Francisco complained about a cab that was “cloudy with cigarette smoke,” the driver allegedly replied: “If you don’t like it, get out.”
Ten people complained that their driver dozed off at the wheel. A Yellow Cab driver “kept falling asleep behind the wheel,” ran a red light and “even fell asleep while I was waiting for his receipt,” wrote one rider who was taking an early morning trip from the airport to downtown San Francisco. “He SHOULD NOT BE ON THE ROAD!!!”
A DeSoto driver reportedly fell asleep at the wheel while driving downtown and jerked awake only when the patron yelled, “Are you OK? Are you OK?”
Kim, DeSoto Cab’s owner, said such an incident would be “completely unacceptable” and promised to look into it.
Under city law, taxi drivers can’t turn down a fare if passengers present themselves “in a clean, coherent, safe and orderly manner” and the driver isn’t at the end of a shift. But 361 patrons complained to 311 that they were refused a fare.
Fifteen people complained that cabs wouldn’t pick them up because they were African American. On Halloween evening in 2011, a black woman called to complain that a Yellow Cab driver pointed to a white woman standing nearby and said, “I want her and not you.” After she complained, the driver used a racial slur, she said.
More than 130 people called 311 to say they couldn’t get a ride because of their destination, most often to the Richmond or Sunset districts, where cab drivers complain that they have a hard time getting a return fare.
A caller in the Marina district flagged down a DeSoto cab, but when he told the driver he was going to the Sunset, the driver simply said, “Good luck,” sped off and immediately picked up another fare.
Some drivers also are accused of not taking passengers if they deem the destination too close, leaving tourists and the elderly on the curb. One pregnant woman who was dizzy after a BART ride said she couldn’t get a Yellow Cab driver to take her six blocks to Ellis Street. He told her she should walk instead, she said. A Yellow Cab representative did not return calls or emails seeking comment.
Tourists trying to get around town were baffled by drivers who passed them by in hopes of getting a more lucrative airport fare.
“Three cabs would not take my fare,” a tourist complained. “I have never been to a city where a cab for hire refused me.”
Credit card problems
About 200 people complained that taxis refused to take credit cards, either forcing them to use cash or booting them from the cab. The complaints came as drivers chafed under a rule that allowed taxi companies to charge them a 5 percent credit card fee, later reduced to 3.5 percent.
A patron who was headed from Nob Hill to Van Ness Avenue said a Bay Cab driver wouldn’t accept a credit card. When he protested, he said the driver told him, “Get out,” and then “tried to remove me physically.”
A Big Dog City cab driver “cursed Mexicans” and stopped after two blocks to kick out a passenger who planned to pay by credit card. “He was very rude and offensive,” the passenger complained. “I don’t even look Mexican.”
A representative of Big Dog City declined to comment.
About 40 people complained about drivers charging illegal fees, including a charge for using a credit card, a fee for bringing a baby and inflated airport fees. In all, 206 people complained about being overcharged for cab fares.
One passenger said a driver took a credit card impression “the old-fashioned way.” The next day, the customer said he got a fraud alert about the card being used to make purchases in Brazil. His taxi receipt said it was for Moe’s Cab.
Moe Harb, the company’s owner, told The Bay Citizen that he had never heard the complaint and did not steal anyone’s credit card number.
A passenger of another company complained about an offensive discount: A Yellow Cab driver “wanted my friend and me to make out” in exchange for 10 percent off the fare. The driver then grabbed one rider’s face, according to the complaint. “I was terrified,” the woman said. “I asked him to please get us to our hotel.”
A Bay Cab driver was accused of using a woman’s credit card number for more amorous purposes. The driver had made sexual overtures and said she could “find happiness, etc., with him,” she said. The next morning, the driver called her at work, using the information from her credit card. When the woman complained to Bay Cab President Roger Cardenas, he laughed and accused her of being the driver’s wife, she said. Cardenas did not return calls seeking comment.
“I am upset by this whole thing and am now very concerned that this driver knows where I live and where I work,” the woman said. “This was not information that I gave him.”
This story was produced by The Bay Citizen, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Learn more at www.baycitizen.org.