New SF taxi chief creates own route 

click to enlarge Kate Toran has been with the SFMTA for 15 years and took over recently as head of the Taxis and Accessible Services Division. - ERICA MARQUEZ/SPECIAL TO THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Erica Marquez/special to the s.f. examiner
  • Kate Toran has been with the SFMTA for 15 years and took over recently as head of the Taxis and Accessible Services Division.

In her customary calm manner that runs counter to some of the fiery rants that many in the taxi industry are known to give against the ride startups that have cut deeply into their business in The City, Kate Toran recently reported at a Municipal Transportation Agency board of directors meeting a steep 65 percent decline in the average trips per taxi from March 2012 to this past July.

The newly appointed director of SFMTA's Taxis and Accessible Services Division did not seem fazed by the stark numbers, the latest reminder of how much business Uber, Lyft, Sidecar and other transportation network companies have steered away from the cab industry.

"I feel like we've really got to go up from there," Toran, 48, said matter-of-factly of the numbers.

But getting some of that lost business back is a tall order.

Despite some regulatory reforms and fee eliminations for cab drivers and companies, the taxi industry continues to suffer. In the midst of this crisis, The City's transit agency had enough faith in Toran to name her the interim director of taxis and accessible services in late June after her outspoken predecessor, Chris Hayashi, retired, and last month made her position permanent.

"She really jumped in and fully embraced the job, got herself up to speed very quickly and proved herself very quickly to be extremely effective in understanding and dealing with the complex world that is the taxi industry," SFMTA Transportation Director Ed Reiskin said of hiring Toran.

Toran, an Albany resident and a native of Falmouth, Mass., started her career as a personal-care attendant. She said her dream job was one that would involve accessibility issues, diversity and working with interesting people.

After finishing her master's degree at UC Berkeley's Department of City and Regional Planning in 1999, Toran applied for a paratransit coordinator position with the SFMTA and has been with the agency for 15 years, serving as paratransit manager since 2011.

After Hayashi resigned as taxis and accessible services director, Toran said she applied for the position of in part because it allows her to continue working with the accessible services program, a passion of hers.

"It was a very exciting move for me," she told The San Francisco Examiner. "It's a good stepping stone and I get to stay with accessible services, where my home team is. In order to get to a higher level, I didn't have to leave where my heart is."

While Toran brings with her a base of knowledge from her background working with paratransit, which involves taxi rides, she recognizes she still has much to learn about the cab industry. She said she plans to raise the taxi ride numbers and save the taxi industry by being transparent with drivers and cab companies and by relaxing some of the SFMTA's regulations to level the playing field with their competition, which operates under fewer rules.

"What I'm trying to do is position us strategically," she said. "I try not to get buffeted by the many winds that blow here. It's a very passionate industry and there are a lot of stakeholder groups."

At the Sept. 16 SFMTA board meeting when Toran gave her first presentation that included the alarming 65 percent decline in trips, Director Malcolm Heinicke brought up some areas in which he expects Toran to make inroads, such as getting all taxis on electronic-hailing apps and looking at places to relax regulations on cabs.

"This is a daunting job given its scope and given where we are in the history of the industry and I'm frankly quite happy that we have someone so professional and so experienced who is willing to take this job on now," Heinicke said.

Toran said she plans to have a meeting with stakeholders from both the taxi and TNC industries to discuss the for-hire transportation business and create a joint study along with the California Public Utilities Commission. She said the commission, which oversees TNCs, has had public proceedings "but it's felt more like a battle zone and I want to try to step back from the polarization."

But some think it won't be a kumbaya moment.

"If I was invited to that meeting, I would be a no-show," Yellow Cab President and General Manager Jim Gillespie said. "Until permanent regulations are put into place [for TNCs], I wouldn't go. I do not recognize Uber, Lyft and Sidecar as legitimate businesses at this point, so at this time there is nothing to sit down and discuss."

But the SFMTA believes her laid-back demeanor compared to Hayashi may be a good thing for the taxi industry in its current state.

"She's not a pushover," said Annette Williams, manager of accessible services whom Toran reported to before she was promoted.

"I'm trying to forge my own path," Toran said. "Chris is a role model for me, but I'm a different personality. I don't think the industry needs Chris Jr. I'll just bring a new energy and a new style."

About The Author

Jessica Kwong

Jessica Kwong

Jessica Kwong covers transportation, housing, and ethnic communities, among other topics, for the San Francisco Examiner. She covered City Hall as a fellow for the San Francisco Chronicle, night cops and courts for the San Antonio Express-News, general news for Spanish-language newspapers La Opinión and El Mensajero,... more
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