City considers putting more cabs on the street 

San Francisco may have an answer to the long waits for taxicabs or the frustration of trying to hail a cab during rush hour: more cabs on the streets.

The last time The City boosted the number of taxis permitted to drive around San Francisco was in 2001, bringing the total cabs in circulation to 1,381. In 1997, there were 821 cabs.

At the time, the increase was justified by a thriving economy and a high demand for cabs, but soon thereafter came the dot-com bust and the Sept. 11, 2001, tragedy, which some say has resulted in cabs riding around empty for hours. And yet, waiting for a cab to arrive or trying to hail a cab can take as long as 20 minutes.

"The single biggest and most prevalent complaint of San Franciscans is their inability to catch a cab," Taxicab Commissioner Malcolm Heinicke said.

The City’s Taxicab Commission has conducted a survey of taxicab service and will present the results at a Feb. 13 hearing to discuss whether there is a need to increase the number of permitted taxis.

The commission is also expected to tackle major service enhancements this year, which Mayor Gavin Newsom advocated in his October 2006 State of The City address when he called on the taxi industry to improve service by establishing more taxi stands and setting up a centralized dispatch system.

An increase in the number of cabs might be a hard sell for drivers and cab companies since it runs the risk of decreasing the amount of money drivers pull in and increasing costs for companies if the demand is not there, according to Taxicab Commission President Paul Gillespie.

Gillespie said it’s unclear at this point if more cabs is the answer. "Only when it’s really busy is it hard to get a cab. When it’s slow, there’s too many," he said.

Thomas George-Williams, chair of the United Taxicab Workers, which represents hundreds of city cab drivers, opposed the idea of more cab permits, saying there is notenough demand.

Heinicke said that better availability of cabs would come from the right number of cabs on the streets along with other improvements, including a dispatch system where a person calls a general number and the cab closest to the caller, regardless of cab company, responds.

Resident Scott Madden said he was all for adding more cabs. "I always wonder why San Francisco can’t do what New York City does. There never seems to be a problem with catching a cab in that town," Madden said.

Andre Reed, who has lived in The City for 34 years, said that adding more cabs might improve service in underserved areas like "out at the beach, the Embarcadero, the marinas and minority neighborhoods."

The City’s No. 1 industry, tourism, will also likely play a factor in the decision to add more cabs. "Our clientele tells us that San Francisco should have more taxis," said Laurie Armstrong, San Francisco Convention and Visitors Bureau spokeswoman.

Taxis by the numbers

» Taxicabs permitted in 1997: 821

» Total permitted since 2001: 1,381

» Estimated number of drivers: 7,500

» Meter starts at: $3.10

» 45 cents is charged for every fifth of a mile of travel and every minute of wait time

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