Taxicabs, like other forms of transportation, have seen ridership plummet during the pandemic. But the industry has scrambled to eke out extra business — and drivers are eager to let the public know that they are ready to take up the slack if Uber and Lyft pause California operations.
“We’ve been forgotten in the collective memory of the public,” said Chris Sweis, CEO of Yellow Cab, San Francisco’s largest taxi fleet. Before the pandemic, it ran about 500 cars a day; now about 165 are on the road. “The taxi fleet in San Francisco has been underutilized. We’ve now modernized operations to handle any excess demand that comes in.”
He and others in the taxi industry are eyeing how to fill the vacuum if Uber and Lyft go away.
The two ride-hailing companies threatened to temporarily cease service in California because of a preliminary injunction in a court case seeking to force them to reclassify drivers as employees. They won a temporary reprieve, but it’s unknown how they’ll react if Proposition 22, a ballot measure they are backing that would permanently keep drivers as independent contractors, does not pass in November. Lyft CEO Logan Green said in court documents that it could leave all or parts of California if Prop. 22 does not pass and they lose the court case.
Making deliveries for online grocer RydeOn is a new line of business for Yellow Cab amid the pandemic.Photo: McArdle Hankin / The Chronicle
“Flywheel is ready and prepared to service all current Uber and Lyft passengers,” said Hansu Kim, owner of Flywheel Taxi, the city’s second-largest fleet with 300 cabs pre-pandemic and about 70 now.
There’s a particular irony to the situation. Taxi drivers blame Uber and Lyft for their steep decline in business over the past decade, saying that the ride-hailing companies got unfair advantages by being more lightly regulated. Uber and Lyft retort that taxi companies grew complacent with city-sanctioned monopolies, and failed to evolve with the times.
Taxis have already matched some Uber and Lyft features, such as apps for summoning vehicles, on top of phone dispatch and street hails, neither of which are available from the ride-hailing companies. Flywheel Taxi uses the Flywheel app — the former DeSoto cab company licensed the name from the app maker and rebranded itself — and Yellow has the YoTaxi SF app.
Besides the riders who would need alternatives, there are tens of thousands of Lyft and Uber drivers who might want another way to make money (although many are not working during the pandemic because of reduced demand and fear of contagion).
“We’re absolutely ready to welcome Uber (and) Lyft drivers, to onboard and train them quickly,” Sweis said.
The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency streamlined procedures for new drivers to get temporary licenses faster, he said. Unlike Uber and Lyft, taxi licenses require a fingerprint background check.