Tricks of the taxi trade

Flickr photo by Angelo DeSantis.

You’ve got a lot of choices when it comes to getting around the Bay Area – you can rent KALW News reporter Casey Miner’s car, for one. You can walk, bike or scoot ... take a bus, ferry or train. Or … you can hail a cab.

Keith Raskin has been driving a taxi in San Francisco for 31 years, but now, with the down economy, he says it's harder than ever to earn a living as a cab driver. KALW's Sam Harnett went out with Raskin on a Friday night to see how a veteran driver makes ends meet.

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KEITH RASKIN: I love driving. And making money. I drive around and take money from people. That's what I do.

SAM HARNETT: It's 4pm on a Friday, and Arrow-checker cab driver Keith Raskin is starting his shift. We're riding down Hayes Street looking for his first fare.

RASKIN: You're like a lab rat – something worked one time, you do it again. You do it again until it doesn't work, then you try something else. The little prize is the fare.

There are two standard ways to get a fare: the street and the radio dispatch. To survive in these slow times, successful drivers also have private clients who call directly to their cell phone.

RASKIN: Hey Vanita, I'm over at the Mission – should I head over now and get you?

For more than 10 years Raskin has driven Vanita's child to school. Today, Vanita's co-worker needs a lift to Lafayette. Long fares like this are great on weekdays. But on weekends Raskin says drivers can make more by stringing together short fares.

RASKIN: On a Friday night, especially, it's connecting the dots...

He decides to take the long fare because Vanita is a loyal customer. In the down economy, it's crucial to have private clients who will call on slow weekdays. Raskin says the dot-com boom in the late ‘90s gave a big boost to the taxi industry. Between 1996 and 1999 the city enlarged the fleet by 300 cabs in order to meet demand.

RASKIN: The money was far better back then than it is now. Back then I could make a thousand bucks a week easy.

Now, those extra cabs are making it harder than ever for drivers on slow weekdays.

RASKIN: You get like an hour and a half in the morning. The morning rush. Taking people to work. Then it's whatever. Taking little old ladies to the doctor.

I don't know how drivers make it. They just keep driving. Pretty much it's just being satisfied with less.

On the plus side, hybrids are saving drivers gas money. To comply with the city's new mandate to lower emissions, cab companies are changing over to hybrid fleets. Raskin says his Prius cuts the shift gas bill of $60 in half. The new cars require far less maintenance than his first vehicle, a 1967 Plymouth Fury.

RASKIN: The floorboards were rusted out. It had a mechanical meter with a big old metal flag on it.

The ultimate goal of a cab driver is to own one of the city's 1,500 medallions, a city-granted license to operate a taxi. Without a medallion, drivers must pay a cab company a $100 gate fee at the end of every shift. Medallion holders can also rent out their medallion to other drivers. Raskin says it's like a cab driver's form of retirement.

RASKIN: Medallion is a golden handcuff. I have it until I die or can't drive.

Raskin got his medallion in 1998 when the city added 300 new medallions during the dot-com boom. He'd been waiting on a list for 14 years. Now, he works in management and only drives occasionally. He has to get up in the morning to work on the dispatch side, so we end the shift an hour and a half early.

It's been a good night. He finishes with around $300, almost as much as he made in the good old days.

For Crosscurrents, I’m Sam Harnett.

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This story originally aired on March 31, 2011.