San Francisco cab industry looks to mobile technology to boost rider experience 

Taxi companies are trying to reclaim business from high-tech ride services such as Uber, Lyft and Sidecar. - ANNA LATINO/SPECIAL TO THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Anna Latino/Special to the S.F. Examiner
  • Taxi companies are trying to reclaim business from high-tech ride services such as Uber, Lyft and Sidecar.

Taxi passengers could soon hail every available driver in San Francisco and track their exact whereabouts as part of a new technology push to put the taxi industry on equal footing with fast-growing transportation alternatives.

There are currently about a half-dozen smartphone apps that link taxi customers with nearby cabs, but the networks are fragmented and driver enrollment is voluntary. Under legislation proposed by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, all 1,700 cabs driving the streets of The City would be required to transmit their coordinates as part of a new electronic network.

Any smartphone app that connects passengers with cabs would be required to use data collected from the network. That means passengers would have access to the full gamut of taxi drivers in San Francisco.

The proposal, which is up for approval at the transit agency’s board of directors meeting Tuesday, is largely a response to the growing use of transportation services such as Uber, Lyft and Sidecar. Those companies, which are not overseen by The City’s transit agency, use smartphone apps to connect drivers and passengers, much to the chagrin of the more regulated cabbies.

“This could be a tremendous tool for taxi drivers and a huge service for the public,” said Mark Gruberg, a spokesman for the United Taxicab Workers organization. “This is a tool we can use to compete with the rogue services that have really affected our livelihood.”

Malcolm Heinicke, a transit agency board member, said the electronic network will provide the centralized dispatch system that has long been absent in the cab industry. With the advent of this technology, drivers will have a leg-up on the competition since taxis are more prevalent and cheaper than the alternatives, Heinicke said.

“Innovation is a key component to our overall efforts to improve San Francisco taxi service,” said Ed Reiskin, the agency’s director of transportation. “By putting real-time information in the hands of the public, we will improve the taxi experience for our customers while ensuring that the industry can grow with advancing technology.”

Mark James, the CEO of Frias Transportation Infrastructure, the private company set to maintain the electronic network, said the data collected by the system could give the transit agency new tools to manage enforcement as well as supply and demand issues in the industry. Frias said the company would track the cabs through GPS units, credit card machines or other onboard diagnostic networks.

Not everyone in the cab industry is convinced that the proposal is sound. Athan Rebelos, general manager at DeSoto Cab, said there are a select few taxi companies in The City that have built a brand name for themselves based on their dispatch service and reliability. Passengers who use the new network to connect with the nearest cabdriver could be in for a disappointment.

“A lot of complaints about the cab industry are related to the lack of professionalism of drivers,” Rebelos said. “If this system just connects passengers with a bunch of cabs that don’t collect credit cards, no one is going to be that happy.”

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Will Reisman

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