SF cab company goes mobile in hopes of better competing with ride-hail apps 

click to enlarge DeSoto’s Sal Albowya, left, applies decals to the first rebranded cab under the Flywheel name as general manager Greg Cochran watches. - MIKE KOOZMIN/THE S.F. EXAMINER
  • Mike Koozmin/The S.F. Examiner
  • DeSoto’s Sal Albowya, left, applies decals to the first rebranded cab under the Flywheel name as general manager Greg Cochran watches.

Navy blue, turquoise and white have covered the vehicles of DeSoto Cab Co. for its entire 82-year history. But in recent weeks, San Francisco's oldest taxi company has literally been painting a new future for its fleet.

DeSoto had considered converting its business model to a charter transportation service, as traditional taxis have lost business to companies that operate ride-hailing apps. Now, however, it is turning in the opposite direction and will brand itself after the technology that made Uber, Lyft, Sidecar and others overnight sensations.

DeSoto will become the first fleet for taxi-hailing app Flywheel, changing its name to Flywheel Taxi and painting its vehicles bright red with reflective white decals of the new logo and moniker.

click to enlarge COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy photo

The move also represents the first fleet for any taxi-hailing app in the world, DeSoto President Hansu Kim told The San Francisco Examiner.

"If there is something I have a little bit of regret about, it is putting aside an iconic brand of San Francisco," Kim said. "We are definitely ending a long tradition, that's for sure. But quite frankly, the Flywheel brand will do better for us and keep our drivers' income high."

Within eight weeks, all 220 DeSoto cabs currently in operation and 30 spare vehicles are expected to be repainted red with Flywheel, Mac App Store and Google Play decals. The new Flywheel Taxi fleet will remain a separate entity from the app company Flywheel, which will still deliver the closest taxi to customers with no preferential treatment to DeSoto.

The DeSoto-Flywheel relationship is symbiotic, Kim said, because it will help him survive as a taxi company while also bringing name recognition to Flywheel. Kim will also become an ambassador of sorts for Flywheel, using his industry connections to encourage taxi companies nationwide to rebrand as Flywheel fleets.

"Flywheel could be Yellow 2.0., the next recognizable brand of the taxi industry," Kim said. "We actually believe what we're doing is creating the model of the taxicab of the future."

click to enlarge COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy photo

DeSoto was one of the first cab companies in The City to sign on to Flywheel nearly two years ago, and Kim has supported Flywheel since it was founded as Cabulous in 2010. DeSoto currently receives 25 to 30 percent of all its booked rides through the app.

Cab companies historically have been wary of a centralized dispatch — essentially what Flywheel has become — because it dilutes their individual customer bases. Yellow Cab Cooperative, the largest taxi fleet in San Francisco, continues to promote its own app, although some of its drivers also use Flywheel. Jim Gillespie, president and general manager of Yellow Cab, expressed hesitation over signing his fleet onto Flywheel due to the app's new partnership with DeSoto.

But with Uber, Lyft, Sidecar and similar ride services taking a significant share of customers, the argument against a centralized dispatch, Kim said, "is now hollow."

DeSoto's transformation comes after Kim has for more than a year considered abandoning the taxi medallion system for charter-party carrier, or TCP, licenses typically obtained by limousines and town cars. That would have cut costs.

DeSoto currently pays $342,000 a month for medallions, amounting to more than $4 million in annual costs. Taxis must have medallions to legally operate.

Details of the financial agreement with DeSoto are confidential, Kim said, but Flywheel will pay some of the repainting and rebranding costs. Flywheel Taxi will maintain corporate clients from its DeSoto days and customers can still call for cabs from its fleet.

At the company yard Feb. 9, shop worker Sal Albowya, 25, stepped back after completing the Flywheel lettering on one side of a Prius V, the first vehicle to undergo the transformation.

"It looks really good," Albowya said. "I think it'll get a lot of attention. I think it really pops."

Flywheel designer Joanne Elrich said the new image could drive a change in the public's perception of taxis as providing poor service.

"It's a friendly font with a good amount of round edges," she said of the decals. "We don't look like Uber, a brand with a superiority consciousness. It brings power to the little man, so to speak. We want to bring power back to the taxi industry."

Maher Elkani, 34, a DeSoto driver for six years who was at the yard Feb. 9, did not know about the change but was not impressed.

"Changing the color is not going to solve the problem for the drivers," he said. "Flywheel is helping, but the core problem is The City needs to reinforce regulations on [ride-hailing services]."

Kim is more optimistic. He said he received six calls from curious cabdrivers who saw the first Flywheel Taxi vehicle driven to City Hall for a recent private meeting with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency. That, Kim said, is a sign that demand exists. In 18 months, if all goes well, Kim anticipates doubling the size of his fleet.

"In a deregulated environment," Kim said, "we can kick ass, too."

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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