Sitting at the base of the towering Manchester Grand Hyatt on West Harbor Drive one recent afternoon, “Peter” ran a rugged finger over the yellowed calluses stretching across his left palm.
“You can see I've done all kinds of work,” he boasted while leaning against his present source of income, a station-wagon taxicab he leases from USA Cab for $60 a day. “A lot of construction, maintenance work, much physical labor. Now, I drive taxi.”
And the taxi business-more accurately, the lack thereof-was driving him crazy that day, although his frenetic pacing and flailing arms could've been the by-product of the latte and cigarettes he kept close by. But after four years of grinding workdays lasting 12 hours or more just to eke out a living, Peter said he's looking for just about any other kind of work beyond his present vocation.
“You have a job for me?” he said half-jokingly.
Peter is not his real name, although he does bear a striking resemblance to the late actor Peter Lorre. Tellingly, the dozen or so cabbies interviewed for this story insisted on complete anonymity (no names, no revealing cab-company affiliations), fearing retribution for speaking candidly about an industry whose local history runs deep with political intrigue, a near-paranoid reaction to competition and, at times, scandal.
One nightshift cabbie, “Norton,” told CityBeat about the near-unanimous hesitancy to go public: “There's no real security out here-that's one of the problems. [The cab owner] can just say, ‘Oh, we just decided we're not going to lease to you.' Without a reason. Sure, I could get a lawyer, but how many thousands am I going to spend on that?
“I think this business needs a union or something, but you can't get five cab drivers together to agree on the time of day. People have tried, but nothing ever comes of it.”
It's been 75 years since the city of San Diego first started regulating taxicabs, and the process has only gotten more complex, confusing and rigorous. Other than members of law enforcement, experts say, taxi drivers endure the heaviest government scrutiny-plus face the ever-present danger of dealing with total strangers of varying attitudes in a confined space, namely a moving vehicle.
Unlike the cabbies of old, who belonged to unions and were full-time employees of dominant companies like Yellow Cab, today's taxicab driver is typically an independent contractor without representation. And more often than not they are newcomers to American culture, susceptible to the seamier elements of society who would exploit their eagerness to seek out their version of the American Dream.
Over several weeks, CityBeat spent time hanging out with cabbies, chatting it up with local taxi regulators and checking in with the cutting-edge, pay-per-ride transport folks in hopes of gauging the state of for-hire transportation in San Diego. This comes as the Metropolitan Transit Development Board, whose job includes the regulation of taxis, has begun issuing new permits for the first time in nearly two decades while simultaneously grappling with legislation to admit a new competitor into the flock-short-ride electric cabs.
San Diego's transportation game is played on a crowded field, with taxis, rental cars, jitneys, shuttles, pedicabs, limousines and those sleek, black town cars jostling for the limited dollars that San Diegans and visitors dole out each year to get from Point A to Point B.
For half a dozen cabbies like Peter, Point A is a stretch of curb in front of the Hyatt next to the convention center downtown. This is one of several regulated “taxi stands” that dot the San Diego landscape, similar to ones found at the zoo, SeaWorld, the airport and several locations downtown. At this one, the drivers keep an eye on an amber light perched on the Hyatt's parking lot wall. When it flashes, that means one cabbie can enter the hotel grounds to make a pickup. The convoy of other cabs then moves up one space.
As Peter dashed off for a fare after a half-hour wait, another cabbie, an Armenian émigré studying political science at San Diego State University, picked up the conversation. A headset cord dangling from his neck, he resembled a young John Belushi but spoke like a character from a Sopranos episode. He, too, lamented the recent drop in business.
“I'm making about half what I made a year ago,” he says between puffs on a Marlboro Red cigarette, apparently the brand of choice for cabbies. He proceeds to offer his theory about the decline in business, an opinion held by several other drivers who gathered around: “Part of the problem is there are too many cabs on the streets right now, but it's really the limos and town cars that are killing us.”
He points to the garage behind him, where he says a cluster of these fancier rides get special treatment. He and the other cabbies say they have no idea who owns the town cars, but they wonder what deal was cut to give them first crack at customers.
“We get the $3 rides to Horton Plaza. They get the fares to La Jolla. It's not fair,” said another cabbie who looked like Nelson Mandela. “I'm going to get out of this business.”
The folks at MTDB say they've heard it all before, yet they don't deny that some behind-the-scenes shenanigans could be occurring at many transportation-reliant establishments-possibly at the expense of cabbies' livelihoods.
But, explained John Scott, the agency's taxi czar, San Diego is simply experiencing some growing pains as it tinkers with an industry unaccustomed to change. “This is the first time in 19 years that any additional taxicab permits have been issued for service in the San Diego metropolitan area,” he said. “We want to make sure we do it right.”
It's a whopper of a job for Scott and his staff, who work out of a funky two-story structure in the shadow of MTDB's stately clock-tower headquarters on Imperial Avenue. And it's gotten even busier since the agency re-entered the permit-issuing business in San Diego.
That was made possible when the San Diego City Council in August of 2001 unanimously approved significant changes to local taxi regulations and also gave MTDB the nod to issue 135 new taxicab permits over a two-year period, the first to be doled out since 1984.
A year ago this week, the agency held a lottery to award the initial 15 permits. In about two weeks, MTDB is expected to bestow 50 more permits to four cab companies out of 27 that applied.
One of winning entries, West Coast Cab Co., offers one of the more inspiring stories in recent San Diego transportation lore. Starting only with a dream and a cultural camaraderie, nearly three dozen Eritrean transplants discovered in 1997 the existence of 58 unassigned and abandoned permits, and they set about to establish a company that would go after a block of 20 permits.
In the ensuing six-year struggle to get this far, attrition has pared down West Coast Cab Co. to just shy of two dozen “shareholders,” as they describe themselves. Last month, they received a certified letter telling them they had been chosen to receive 20 permits. That week, about half the corporation turned up at the weekly Catfish Club luncheon to pay homage to their longtime supporters, particularly the Rev. George Walker Smith.
The shareholders had driven their leased cabs to the Channel 10 TV studio for the luncheon. Michel Anderson, a well-connected downtown lobbyist who took up the cause and led the group through the myriad regulatory hoops involved in creating a cab company, came into the proceedings beaming.
“I've been involved in a lot of things over the years, and this was one of the hardest,” he told club attendees. Afterwards, Anderson told CityBeat that the local taxi bigwigs at first fought his group's efforts tooth and nail, but now, as he puts it, “there's been a 180-degree turnaround.”
A determined salesman by trade, Anderson said this about the shift in sentiment from the likes of Yellow Cab, the 800-pound gorilla among taxi companies in San Diego. “I think they realized that they were not going to prevent new permits from coming on the street,” he said, “and they saw how solidified these gentlemen were and how business-oriented they were and how they weren't going to give up. And I think they came to admire that, and they began to look upon us as an ally.”
He looked around the table of smiling faces, and he added: “Seven years ago, we didn't know each other. And now we're like brothers, you know?” Thunderous laughter erupted from the other shareholders.
But for every West Coast Cab Co. that works its way into the bosom of the big players, there will be guys like Greg Paquette who find themselves doing battle with the Yellow Cabs of the world. When he and a since-departed partner opened the Mini Cab Co. in East Village, their white, electric-powered, golf-cart-like cabs were an instant hit as they whirred along the downtown streets last August.
The only problem was, regulators had a tough time classifying the vehicles, and the powerful cab companies were screaming unfair competition. After City Hall and MTDB initially threw up their hands on the electric-cab concept, Paquette managed to gain a limousine permit from the state Public Utilities Commission, which licenses tour and charter vehicles. With that, he was able to create a business focused on pre-arranged pickups.
In November, Yellow Cab filed suit against Mini Cab, claiming unfair competition. In March, a Superior Court judge denied an injunction sought by Yellow Cab, but the financial burden of the ongoing legal scuffles finally forced Paquette to close shop temporarily on April 21, a week before the City Council was set to hear a proposed pilot program ordinance for so-called “short-ride” electric cabs.
“Mostly, it was our economic situation-or lack thereof, actually,” Paquette told CityBeat recently. “But we closed also to bring awareness that Mini Cab could not succeed in its current state. Frankly, I was also trying to bring the pressure onto the council.”
In mid-February, the City Council's Land Use and Housing Committee boosted Paquette's hopes when it voted 4-1 in support of a pilot program, with geographic limits, to run these so-called “short-ride neighborhood transportation” vehicles with the goal of eventually transferring regulatory responsibility to MTDB.
But led by Councilmember Ralph Inzunza's infamous “punt, punt, punt” declaration to the visible outrage of colleague Michael Zucchet, a Mini Cab supporter, the council on April 29 “punted” the task back to MTDB to come up with an ordinance that treats electric cabs more like traditional taxis.
“D-Day,” as Paquette calls the day MTDB will weigh in on the proposed ordinance, should come in roughly a month. But a few weeks ago, Paquette hit the streets again, this time solo.
“It's just me on the street,” he says, his voice gaining enthusiasm. “Why? Trying to keep the name out there, trying to keep it going until we get an ordinance over at MTDB. It's still all pre-arranged-can't be flagged; turning down those customers. I'm just going out there shaking hands, telling people we're back in business. Basically, I'm starting all over again.”
As for Yellow Cab, Paquette says they simply want him out of business. (Representatives from Yellow Cab did not respond to an interview request for this story.) He adds it doesn't make him feel any more comfortable knowing that MTDB's taxicab committee, chaired by City Councilmember Brian Maienschein, has several taxi-industry big shots sitting in judgment of his company. Two among the 15-member board, Sue Watson and Anthony Leone, are executives in the Yellow Cab empire, while a third, Tony Hueso, hails from USA Cab.
“I think any fraction of a percentage of market share that they conceivably might lose, they want it nipped in the bud, like pronto,” the Mini Cab owner says of the folks at Yellow Cab. He claims Yellow Cab employees once tried to trick a Mini Cab driver he was riding with into picking up a waving passenger from the street, which is allowed for traditional cabs but not Mini Cabs. He said another Yellow Cab employee was hiding in the bushes nearby snapping photographs.
“So where it stands now is there have been some nasty letters going back and forth between our attorney and their attorney, and they know they don't have anything,” he said. “What they've got is a bulldog that won't let go-that bulldog being me.”
He said other cab companies have complained about Mini Cab as well. USA Cab, he said, called them on the carpet over rooftop lights, which turned out to be perfectly legal advertising. Others claim they've seen Mini Cab soliciting rides on the street, another no-no. Paquette said his company wasn't operating at the time the soliciting allegedly occurred.
But what still sticks in his craw, more than anything else, is the April City Council meeting. How, he wondered, had a previous, near-unanimous council committee vote come to such a weak-kneed conclusion at the council level-to “punt,” as Inzunza pronounced with such spineless authority?
“You probably remember the Yellow Cab scandal of the '70s, which was all about fixing rates and fixing [permits],” he recalled about a time when several political careers, including that of then-Mayor Frank Curran, hit the skids. “Well, you might have noticed all the Yellow Cab drivers who came to the [April] meeting to testify against us.”
There were indeed an extraordinary number of cabbies that told the council essentially the same thing that day-that a business like Mini Cab means longer hours and less money for themselves and their families.
But how could they themselves afford the time to sit and wait to testify? Paquette and several Yellow Cab drivers contend that Yellow Cab offered to waive the daily lease fee of roughly $100 for any driver willing to speak in opposition to Mini Cab.
The banter doesn't surprise the seemingly unflappable Scott. A former traffic enforcement officer at Lindbergh Field, where Yellow Cab operates another dominant platoon of cabs in a hodgepodge of some 225 total taxis, Scott calls the tension “typical with the private-hire industry. You look at taxicabs, and they are heavily regulated almost everywhere. And then you look at a new type of transportation with the new kids on the block trying to come in. Whatever we do, we want it to be fair.”
Back at the Hyatt, cabbies continued to gather to talk just about that-fairness. They point to their colleagues, some of whom are curled up in the driver's seat trying to catch a short nap. Others play backgammon on car hoods or simply shoot the breeze.
Norton, the nightshift cabbie, has talked to drivers who have worked for as long as 30 hours at a stretch to make those ever-daunting cab lease payments. Make that nut, and you keep working. Miss it, and in all likelihood you're replaced.
But now taxi stands at popular places like the zoo and SeaWorld are twice as deep with cabs, giving drivers fewer opportunities for pickups. “There are just way too many cabs on the road,” Norton said, repeating what has become the cabbie's mantra of late. “I'm empty 80 percent of the night. It used to be you'd struggle through the week and then make your money on the weekends. But now it's so hard even to do that because they've put out so many cars.”
If he's lucky, Norton said he'll clear $70 on a good night-sometimes more Fridays and Saturdays-after paying his $110-a-day lease, insurance and gas. “But for cab companies,” he added, “the more cars they can put on the road, the more of that transportation dollar they can take for themselves because that lease driver has to pay that lease, no matter what. It's all about money.”
Norton, like the others, does talk about leaving the taxi world, but he's not sure what he'd do. “If I wanted to [I could] go out and buy a San Diego [permit] sticker, but it would cost me about $45,000 because they're limited,” he said. “People tell me, ‘Just you wait till the ballpark opens.' But I tell them I don't make money sitting in 45 minutes of traffic. I'm gonna tell people to go to the trolley and take it around because I can't sit up to an hour to make three bucks.
“Right now, you've got drivers out there working 18-hour days to make up the difference. You think the city streets are any safer because of that?”