This week, some Muni buses started carrying ads with messages asking: "Would you rather: a driver who knows the city by heart or by GPS?"
Next to that is the face of Sai Lee, 67, a Luxor Cab driver who has been in the industry since 1969. The "Would you rather" ads were designed by Flywheel, a China Basin-based taxi-hailing app company that has drivers from every cab brand in San Francisco on board, and are running on city buses without a fee through an informal agreement with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency.
The ads highlight what city taxi drivers offer that drivers for Uber, Lyft, Sidecar and other transportation network companies presumably don't -- experienced drivers who know San Francisco.
"I know The City inside out," Lee said. "Name any address in The City. I know the cross street."
Other ads bear faces of longtime taxi drivers, with slogans such as, "Would you rather: a licensed professional or 'some guy'?" and "Would you rather: get a bottle of water or get to where you're going on time?"
They all end with the line, "Hail a real taxi driver with Flywheel."
The campaign aims to combat the growing perception that city cabdrivers are failing to deliver quality service and losing market share to app-based ride services like Uber that aim to offer a better and more hassle-free ride.
Chris Hayashi, deputy director of the SFMTA's Taxis and Accessible Services Division, has been making a concerted effort to promote cabs as more sound options than transportation network companies. In the past year, that's included a "Know What You're Getting Into" ad campaign on Muni buses that listed proper insurance, extensive training and a formal dispute-resolution process as benefits.
Last fall, the SFMTA required all taxis in The City to provide their location and trip data for regulatory purposes and for years had hoped to gather the information and provide it to third-party developers to design mobile apps to help The City compete with the growing field of startups offering ride services. At the time, Flywheel, first known as Cabulous, was the only such platform. Now, other companies like Taxi Magic exist, but Flywheel was the first to approach the SFMTA with a creative ad design and ask that they run on Muni buses.
"We stepped up," Flywheel Vice President of Marketing Seth Berman said. "The heritage of Cabulous was working primarily with the taxi industry and that is a heritage that Flywheel continued."
Last month, the SFMTA board decided it was a win for all parties and threw support to Flywheel and advertising the company's hailing service.
"They didn't have to convince us because we've been working with them for at least three years trying to achieve a public-policy goal," Hayashi said, "which is to make an adequate supply of taxis available on a smartphone platform and then get the word out to people that it is available."
Said Flywheel CEO Steve Humphreys: "It's certainly good news for us and we're honored that we got that vote of confidence."
With about 1,900 taxis on the streets at a given time, many in the industry had hoped The City would develop its own taxi-hailing app, but for now the SFMTA is relying on Flywheel.
Amy Davis, 43, another Luxor Cab driver on a Flywheel ad, said the taxi-hailing app has been effective.
"I do feel Flywheel has enough drivers on it to sort of act as a centralized dispatch," she said, but added that she had hoped the SFMTA would develop its own all-encompassing app.
The SFMTA is open to working with other taxi haling apps like Taxi Magic, which has a smaller network of San Francisco cabdrivers subscribed.