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

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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.

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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. 

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