How to Get a Cab in San Francisco and 4 Other Tips From Taxi Drivers

A cab in San Francisco. Marcin Wichary/Flickr.
A cab in San Francisco. Marcin Wichary/Flickr.

As The Bay Citizen reported last week, a total of 1,733 complaints against taxi drivers were registered with San Francisco’s 311 complaint line last fiscal year. That represents a 13 percent increase in gripes over the previous fiscal year and it’s nearly double the 900-complaint goal of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which regulates taxis.

Taxis infested with bed bugs, drivers falling asleep at the wheel, rude behavior and difficulty getting a cab also were among the complaints….(T)wo friends were upset when a driver offered them a 10 percent discount if they made out in front of him….

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.

These are serious complaints, to be sure. But San Francisco cab drivers and others in the taxi industry say the number of grievances reflects a small percentage of the total fares carried by the city’s taxis. Jim Gillespie, the general manager of the Yellow Cab Cooperative in San Francisco, wrote in a recent email that his company alone gives an estimated 20,000 rides daily. Athan Rebelos, the general manager of DeSoto cab, said his company provided a total of 1.46 million rides in 2012. And DeSoto and Yellow are just two of the 29 taxi companies licensed to operate in San Francisco, according to the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency.

Rebelos put it this way: “Most cab rides are a nonevent.” Of course, not every bad experience in a San Francisco cab generates a call to 311. And there’s no doubt we’ve all had memorable rides in which the cab driver has mistaken Lombard Street for the Autobahn or  interpreted our one-word response to “How’s it going?” as an  invitation to expound at length on his views on municipal government or fly fishing.

But it’s a two-way street, as they say in the biz. Just as passengers have to deal with cab drivers, drivers have to deal with passengers — and there are a lot more of us than there are of them.

So we decided to get the other side of the story, speaking with drivers and other in the industry insiders about what passengers might do to ensure they have a better experience while riding in a San Francisco cab. Based on those interviews, we’ve put together five tips for the conscientious cab customer.

1. Don’t be a bossypants

Barking orders or talking down to your driver is not going to help.

“A lot of people get in and assume you’re an idiot,” noted Barry Korengold, who said he’s been driving a taxi in the Bay Area for more than 30 years. “If they expect to get bad service, they’re probably going to get bad service.”

Korengold and others emphasized that passengers should understand that driving a cab is hard work and at times dangerous.

“Drivers, they’re out there working the street and it’s a real tough situation. You’re dealing with pimps, drug dealers and CEOs all in a matter of minutes,” Rebelos said.

Some drivers also are angry that San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency has closed the waiting list for new taxi medallions. And they’re upset about the growth of ride-sharing services, which the taxi industry considers unfair competition.

“There aren’t too many happy cab drivers in San Francisco given what’s going on,” noted Brad Newsham, who said he’s been driving a cab in San Francisco since 1985. Newsham detailed some of his frustrations in a 2010 San Francisco magazine article that you can read here. “I am frankly aghast.”

If you’re someone who might occasionally want to brighten to cab driver’s day, try offering a compliment when you receive good service, Rebelos said.

“When they get a good driver, let that driver know how happy you are,” he said.

2. Hailing 101

A busy street might not always be the best place to hail a cab, Korengold said. Often, cab drivers can be found on less-busy streets because they’re avoiding traffic. And when hailing a cab, hopeful passengers should be sure to stand in an area where they can be safely picked up.

Bossiness in cab hailing will not work in your favor, Korengold said.

“If they’re standing in the middle of the lane so you can’t go by them, what does that say about their personality?” he said. “People snap their fingers and point to the ground, I’m not pulling over for that.”

Korengold offered these tips for flagging down a cab:

“Don’t just put your arm up once and take it down. Cabdrivers are constantly looking all around, and may not have noticed you raise your arm. Leave it up there so when the drivers sees you, he knows you want a cab. It’s known as ‘the Statue of Liberty pose.’ I’ve seen many people giving me a blank stare as if they may be wondering why I’m not stopping, but if I don’t see them put their arm up, there’s no reason for me to stop. If I’m empty, I would be glad to pick them up.

“If you are eating a slice of pizza, hotdog or burrito, finish it before trying to hail a cab. Most cabdrivers do not want a stinky pizza or other food eaten in the cab, that will most likely have parts of it dropping off, or your hands leaving grease on the door handles. I see this all the time and will not pick people up eating their pizza or burritos.”

3. Don’t take it out on the wrong cab

“A lot of times I have to pass people by because I’m heading to a radio call,” noted John Han, who said he’s been driving a cab in San Francisco for about 10 years. “It looks as if I’m ignoring them. It looks like I’m just driving by. I’m not ignoring them.”

Passengers who feel they’ve been ignored might feel the urge to express frustration to the driver of the next cab that picks them up.

“I’m constantly having people get in my cab and people tell me about this terrible cab driver they had,” Korengold said. “I’m like, wait a minute, let me tell you about this terrible passenger I had.”

“Nobody wants to have an angry person in their cab.”

4. Know your intersections

“All I ask of my passengers is that they give me a street and a cross street,” Han said. “Don’t say they’re going to this or that club.”

“Be as clear as you can at the beginning and go from there,” added Newsham.

5. A polite ‘shut up’ is acceptable

“If you don’t want to have an interaction, tell them they need to be quiet,” Newsham said. “That’s a fairly effective tactic.”

There you go. Happy riding. And don’t forget to check for your wallet, cellphone and keys before you leave a cab. That might help as well….

Have you had a memorable experience in a Bay Area cab? We want to hear your positive stories as well as your horror tales, and also your tips for ensuring a smooth cab ride. 

Leave a comment at the bottom of this post or call 1-866-588-8883.

  • Chris S.

    The main problem with cabs in our city is simply that there are not enough of them. When I call a cab company to send a cab and they never show up, it simply reflects the severe under-supply of cabs in this city. None of the points on this post address that(other than a randomly placed reference of one cab driver’s feelings on the issue), obviously, so it’s fairly irrelevant and more or less completely unhelpful.

    If the cab companies seriously cared about service (which they don’t), they would start first by addressing their inability to successfully fill cab demand. The city should release more medallions and encourage more competition in the marketplace. Why do you think services like ubercab are so successful? Because the standard cabs in this city are completely unreliable and/or nearly impossible to find. The problems with cabs in this city do not lie AT ALL with the riders in this city – they lie completely with the cab companies.

    And if the argument is that everyone is doing their best in the situation…well, it’s just not good enough.

    • http://www.desotogo.com Athan

      Chris cab companies are putting more cabs on the road. We have worked closely with the SFMTA to get new medallions issued to companies which have a proven record of servicing the local community. The data exists now through systems which SFMTA mandated in all SF cabs. Of course it takes time to deploy vehicles, to recruit drivers and for drivers to get licensed. San Francisco has gone from under 900 cabs in 1995 to over 1,700 now. It is likely that more medallions will be issued this year.If we could put cabs on the road today we’d gladly do it but there are certain realities.

      • http://www.facebook.com/deanclarkstore Dean Clark

        The reliability Athan also has to do with dispatching a cab. Taxi drivers will take a radio call and then in route the cab driver decides to pick up a passenger who is on the street, thus leaving the dispatch call in a lurch. What can be done to correct this problem?

        • Harris

          Drivers do this because a “bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.” There is no guarantee that the caller will be there when the cab arrives. Transportation apps charge a penalty to callers who don’t present themselves when their car arrives. Cab companies aren’t allowed to do this because the SFMTA regulates every aspect of its business, not market forces. If cab companies, too, could charge a fee for dispatching a cab to an empty residence, and drivers were compensated for their fruitless effort, service would immeasurably improve. On a Friday night, half the radio orders being called are “bogus” — the customer has fled the scene of the crime, flagging the first empty cab that passes them. Without credit card information up front, there is no way to verify the validity of the order.

    • Harris

      Companies care more about making money than providing service. If providing service meant making more money, service would improve. The same goes for cab drivers. But the SFMTA regulates the fare structure — basically the incentives in the business. There is no incentive to fight a 25 minute traffic jam to the Moscone Center to give a customer a 5 minute ride back to his hotel. He’s only getting paid for the 5 minutes the meter is running. In Italy, the meter starts when the empty cab is dispatched so the customer pays for the effort the cab driver makes in swimming upstream to pick the passenger up. Cab service is excellent in Italy because their incentive structure is based on market incentives. Market incentives are an alien concept in the People’s Republic of San Francisco. Even New York City has rush hour surcharges. SF doesn’t. Blame the SFMTA.

  • BARTmeetsclockworkorange

    How to get a drama-free cab in SF: Pull out your iPhone and hit the button marked “Uber”. Done.

    • Carl Russo

      Or hit “Flywheel” and get a legal cab at a cheaper rate.

  • ejackson415

    Cabs in SF are the worst I’ve ever come across. They routinely pass people on the street for more lucrative fares at conferences, if you order a cab over the phone, they never come leaving those people stranded, and they are generally rude and have an air of self-entitlement. Have you tried getting a cab when there’s a conference in downtown? It’s impossible.

    This is what happens when you give people a monopoly, they get lazy and self-entitled, and try to get the most amount of money for least effort. The solution is to double or triple the amount of cabs so that they are hungry and want to actually service people, or to let new services like Uber serve us. I’m tired of the SF taxi situation, and we need something to change, we can’t allow this monopoly that doesn’t serve the public to continue to exist as it currently does.

    • yermom72

      There is no taxi monopoly in this city, in fact there are over 1500 independent contractor (= entrepreneur) cabdrivers. Also conference fares are usually not more lucrative, an SF resident is almost always a better fare (and better tipper). Most likely those drivers pass you to serve calls they have already taken. I hope you can see the irony that you are complaining that drivers don’t take phone orders, then complaining again about the ones who pass you to take phone orders…

  • Daniella

    When I lived in the Sunset we had to bribe cab drivers to take us home, if they let us get in at all. On multiple occasions I’ve had a driver refuse to go to the Sunset and ask us to get out. I’m never rude about it, but it is frustrating.

    • Harris

      If there was a freeway out to the Sunset, cab drivers would jump at the chance to give you a ride. But going through stop sign after stop sign, stop and go, stop and go, 20-30 times, 30 minutes going there and 30 minutes coming back usually empty, makes the ride unprofitable. SF is not NYC. There is no density, no high rises in the Sunset. The chances of a cabbie getting a ride back downtown are slim. Yet, the SFMTA will not allow surcharges to be tacked on these kinds of rides, which would make them profitable and easier to fill.

    • Eric

      I currently live in The Sunset and cab drivers sometimes just refuse to go. From time to time they get downright agressive and throw me out of their cab. Frustrating. It is funny that taxi companies are upset about Uber and similar apps/companies. I use those services because they will happily take me home without a fight. They also take credit cards without an issue. You treat the customer poorly they will go somewhere else.

      • Harris

        Your apps also charge considerably more money. I get it. People are willing to pay extra for immediate service, for guaranteed service. Why won’t the SFMTA allow cab companies to charge for this? Because the City uses cabs to fulfill their federal requirement to service the disabled in order to get transportation funding for MUNI (i.e., the Paratransit taxi vouchers). And such surcharges would end up costing the City more. They’d rather take it out of the taxi industry’s pockets.

        • yermom72

          The best cab industries are not only affordable for everyday people but allow the drivers to make a living. The road you are asking to go down (a la Uber) would do neither. You (and we as a society) need to drop this disastrous and irrational faith in “free markets”.

  • Harris

    Let’s not forget that the City does not make it easy to negotiate the streets of San Francisco with an automobile. The SFMTA controls MUNI, Parking & Traffic, public garages and taxis. What is their priority? Raising money. Which is why parking meter rates are going up and bus schedules are being slashed. There are traffic jams everywhere. But SFMTA isn’t concerned because they can’t be touched politically. The commission members are appointed to staggered terms by different mayors. Their various responsibilities conflict. Traffic lanes are being replaced with bike lanes even though traffic flow is degraded. They seemingly “want” to discourage car usage and make your experience behind a wheel as miserable as possible. Well, that effects cabs too folks. Answering cab orders is difficult when getting around is so circuitous. Apps work because they charge more. Cab fares are regulated. This City is dysfunctional and cab service simply mirrors that.

    • yermom72

      Therefore, we need to reform the MTA. We need a ballot measure to make them an elected body.

      • yermom72

        I’d be fascinated to know who voted against this post, and why…

  • http://www.facebook.com/deanclarkstore Dean Clark

    Barry I would say when people call you an idiot they are spot on!

    • http://www.facebook.com/deanclarkstore Dean Clark

      By the way it would be great to implement a rating system with the ride. After all they have the back seat screens that could have an interface to allow passengers to comment on their cab experience they are having at that time. The SFMTA could use this information and if a driver is getting a low score they could be disciplined by the SFMTA. Instead of their current way where they just listen to one or two passengers or rumors and then take action. This would definately knock Barry Kornegold out of driving a cab because a 1 star out of 5 would not make the grade!

      • Barry Korengold

        Dean, you still haven’t answered my question after the other article. Do you carry commercial insurance on your private car when you drive for Sidecar? If not, how would you deal with a collision where there are injuries? Also curious, have you had it inspected for bedbugs?

        • yermom72

          For DC’s sake, I hope he doesn’t get in an accident while driving for sidecar, if he has read his terms (prepared by an army of lawyers) he should know he’d be up a creek. His passengers too.

    • Carl Russo

      Clark drives a scab cab? NOW I know why he disses real cab drivers under every taxi article on the Web.

  • Ed Healy

    If SF cab drivers were as incompetent as the “journalists” who write about taxis in San Francisco no one would ever get anywhere. It’s hard to believe that Mr. Hall recycled the lie that San Francisco taxicabs were infested with bed bugs AFTER being presented with evidence that the Department of Public Health said that there was “no infestation.”

    The level of bigotry and intellectual dishonesty that goes into writing these sensationalized pieces is shocking. I mean, didn’t these guys go to college? Didn’t they ever take a logic course? Haven’t they heard of “over generalization?” Weren’t they taught that you should at least try to tell the truth?

    These hit pieces by Hall and Elinson would not have gotten a passing grade in my high school English class.

    A larger question is: If these “journalists” can’t even cover as subject as minor taxicabs honestly, is there anything true in the local press? If not, what’s the point of publishing them?

    • http://www.kqednews.org/ Ian Hill, KQED News

      Hi Ed,
      Thanks for your comment. When you refer to evidence, I believe you’re citing a post on your blog, which readers can find by Googling “The Phantom Cab Driver Phites Back.” In that post, as in your comment above, you correctly note that the health department found no active infestation. However, both the cab company and the health department say the reason there was no active infestation was that the cab was fumigated before it was inspected. That was noted in the original post about the complaints, which you can find by clicking on “reported” in the lead sentence of the post above. Here is the relevant section from the original post:
      “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.”
      Thanks,
      Ian Hill

      • Ed Healy

        There still was only one taxi involved and “complaints about bed begs are rare,” so for you to lede with “Taxi infested” with was indeed hack journalism. Most of the cabs are in pretty good shape in this town. If you don’t think so go ride a few taxis in New York city.

        Ditto with the racism. Mentioning the one incident of a racial slur makes it sound like racism is rampant among cab drivers. As for the 15 people who think they didn’t get picked up because they were black. Unless they were hit with racial slurs they really don’t know why they weren’t picked do they? If they had been racially insulted, they certainly would have mentioned it in the complaints.

        There are 30 millions rides in this city every year and you are taking a few random incidents to stand for the whole.

        The thing that bothers me the most is that you and your fellow yellow “journalists” haven’t taken the least bit of trouble to find out how this business really works. Of course I can’t blame you. The cab business is incredibly complex as are the people in it. It would take a lot of work and real investigative skills to do the job. It’s much easier to take a few incidents out of context and make sweeping (thus false) generalizations about a subject that you haven’t studied enough to understand.

        When Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “An opinion is a dead thought,” I think he had articles like yours in mind.

        • http://www.kqednews.org/ Ian Hill, KQED News

          Hey Ed,
          Thanks again for your comments. This is obviously a divisive issue for some in the Bay Area, as shown by the heated discussion below. Your commentary and opinions are welcome. Please keep posting!
          Ian

    • Allistair

      > what’s the point of publishing them?

      Clicks. Sells ads. Real journalism died about ten years ago in America, at all levels.

  • Mike Blide

    Wow,

    An almost reasonable article about cabs. Yet there is no mention of the ruthless exploitation of an undefended body of labor, no mention of the bribery and corruption inherent in our industry, and no mention of anything but the so-called priorities of those who whine loudly believing their “Want” is more pressing than our “Need”.

    In this comment column there is a self-declared thief of cab fares (D. Clark) and one who wants to reduce us to a level desperate enough to submit to his wants (Chris S), by the device of making us “hungry”.

    Even the General Manager of Desoto is presented as a defender of Driver rights, for Athan while a person I like and know well, is the very opposite of that, for he is now over-seer of a taxi-plantation.

    Please, write the article that needs to be written, of the annihilation of the medallion system, the humbling of our industry to Munis alleged poverty, and the failure of simply protecting our people UNDER THE LAW, as licenced professionals committed to driving and paying for such a privilege, the honorable profession of driving a cab.

    I say again to those who complain and use as anecdotal evidence their failure to learn and competently use a taxi force that is per capita LARGER than Manhattan, the problem is YOURS, and DON”T MAKE YOUR PROBLEM MINE.

    What you think you know is seen through a keyhole defined by ignorance. Your opinion is not proof, your wants not evidence, and your presence in debate worthless. To the trolls who hate us drivers and the masters of industry who are variously benevolent (Athan) or malevolent (John Lazar), stop your hypocrisy. You are hurting real people.

    You are inflicting injury on over 5000 hard-working and long suffering drivers, and those you profess to be fighting for are the most self-entitled and privileged elements of our city.

    That’s the best I can offer. To my enemies. Burn. I return your contempt.

    Mike Blide

  • ace

    SF Cabs are the worse, especially if you live by 3rd, good luck on getting a ride.

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