Fixing the cab problem

Drivers continue to get screwed by the big cab outfits, and the supervisors need to take that on directly

EDITORIAL Sups. Michela Alioto-Pier and Gerardo Sandoval are both proposing changes that would allow taxi companies to raise the fees they charge drivers to lease cabs. Alioto-Pier's plan seems entirely wrongheaded, and Sandoval's could use some work. But both proposals fail to address the much bigger issues facing the industry.

Most San Francisco cabdrivers are independent contractors: they pay the taxi companies a "gate," or lease fee, every shift, buy their own gas, and keep whatever's left from the fares customers pay. The city regulates both the meters and the gates.

But over the past few years the meter rate — the amount the drivers actually collect — has been mostly flat, while gates have risen and the cost of gas has soared. So the drivers are being squeezed. And, of course, as contractors they have no health insurance.

That's obviously bad for the drivers, but it's bad for the city too: if driving a cab doesn't pay a decent wage, the quality of the drivers is going to decline. The long-termers, who know the city and have plenty of experience behind the wheel, are going to leave, and more of the remaining drivers will be scrambling (often at the risk of accidents) to get from one stop to the next as fast as possible so they can squeeze in more fares per shift.

Alioto-Pier's legislation as originally introduced would have allowed the big companies in town to raise gates by $18.50 per shift, from $91.50 to $110. That would have cost the average full-time driver almost $5,000 per year. Since most drivers aren't making big money these days anyway, that sort of a pay cut would be brutal.

Alioto-Pier is now amending the bill, and it's not clear how extensively she'll change it, but even a small gate increase is unacceptable. Even if the cab companies need more money, they shouldn't take it from the drivers; while tourists and some residents would complain about a fare increase, the Board of Supervisors should accept no plan that doesn't at least ensure that the drivers come out even.

Sandoval wants to allow very modest gate hikes for companies that switch to clean-energy cabs, which is a fine idea but needs to go further. Many of the companies rely on big, gas-guzzling cars; even if those vehicles ran on natural gas, they'd still be wasting fossil fuels. If the city wants to fight taxi pollution, the board should require all new cab purchases to meet tough mileage standards and should provide incentives to get the aging clunkers out of the fleet. (Cars that use less gas would help the drivers save on costs too.)

But the real issue here is that drivers continue to get screwed by the big cab outfits, and the supervisors need to take that on directly. There should be no gate increase until there's a driver health care plan in place — and in the future, all gate increases should be linked to fare hikes. If the companies get more money, the drivers should too; that's only fair.