Serve passengers, free the taxicabs 

Here’s Taxicab Commission President Paul Gillespie, in a moment of brilliant obviousness: "Only when it’s really busy is it hard to get a cab. When it’s slow, there’s [sic] too many." Do tell.

Gillespie was grappling with a perennial San Francisco problem, indeed an issue that defies the regulatory mind-set worldwide. How do you divine exactly the right point at which a municipality reaches optimal service of those of us who stand street side, whistling, thrusting fingers into the sky or otherwise hailing motorcars whose drivers profit by conveying us from Point A to Point B?

The issue comes up again, the first time since 2001, when the commission authorized 1,381 cabs to prowl the streets with officially sanctioned "medallions" — a fancy word suggesting that permission to operate a cab really is as good as gold. In fact, medallions are highly coveted inasmuch as they limit competition.

Lately, ever so stealthily, a sense has grown that maybe, just maybe, perhaps owing to an uptick in tourism, the commission should allow a few more cabs onto the streets of San Francisco. Did anyone imagine that 1,381 was a magic number, never to be altered even after five years’ time?

Gillespie commendably brought the matter into the open, even if, predictably enough, the United Taxicab Workers would rather it hadn’t been revisited. Fewer cabs plying the streets for more passengers still mean swelling purses for the unionized cabbies. More cabs mean a better deal for passengers.

So how do you find that right number of cabs? Answer: You don’t. You let the free market find it. You don’t even fuss about it. Sure, if you’ve grown up in a city that, generation after generation, simply assumes that a politically appointed commission must dictate the number of drivers who can engage in these private transactions, then you might be horrified at the slightest suggestion there’s another way, a free-market way.

But this is so simple that even a "progressive" might be able to grasp it. Let’s say a San Franciscan seeks an entry-level job while taking computer classes. He owns a presentable car in working condition. Another San Franciscan, garage-less and resolutely against owning a car, wants a ride. A fee is negotiated and the trip successfully completed. That should be illegal?

You protest: What about the driver’s skills, his motivation, the car’s condition? What about, gulp!, the passenger’s safety? What about the safety of pedestrians and other motorists? So, require a driver’s license and insurance. Just don’t continue the irrational habit of limiting supply.

San Francisco now is home to at least three competing car-sharing firms, a wonderfully innovative idea in the same business, when you think about it, as the taxi drivers (and car-sharing drivers show arguably less documented skill). The main difference: They have varying business plans. The taxi drivers have City Hall.

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Staff Report

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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