Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A History of San Francisco's Cab Industry, in Advertisements (Part One)

Historical advertisements for San Francisco's cab industry offer glimpses of the changing city.

Advertisement in Daily Alta California, 1855. (California Digital Newspaper Collection)

Gold Rush San Francisco was a city of mad extravagances, fueled by that great disruptor, gold. Miners returning from the diggings with pockets full of gold dust and nuggets descended on the city looking for a good time. For many, this meant picking up some liquor, prostitutes, and hangers-on in the Barbary Coast, then stumbling over to the Plaza (today’s Portsmouth Square) for a hack, which they treated as a mobile party-wagon, riding around the town for hours, or taking excursions to the Mission, Meigg’s Wharf, or the Ocean Beach, stopping for drinks at the numerous watering holes along the way.

The city’s earliest hired carriage drivers rose to the occasion. Traveler J.D. Borthwick reported that “the hackney carriages of San Francisco” in the 1850s “were infinitely superior to those of any other city in the world.” In contrast to their rough surroundings, they were “large handsome carriages, lined with silk, and brightly painted and polished, drawn by pairs of magnificent horses, in harness, which, like the carriages, was loaded with silver.” Cab fares were proportionately high: “One could not cross the street in them under five dollars.”

Most of the hack drivers of the day were independents—owner/operators of a single carriage—like John Glover, who ran the above advertisement in the Daily Alta California for a week in November, 1855. Glover seems to have been in a running competition to have the finest equipage in the city; the Alta reported that this carriage, built in Boston and shipped to California by sea, had cost him $5000, which would have been a preposterous sum in 1855—anywhere but in San Francisco, that is.

As Glover’s ad indicates, he spent much of his time on the Plaza, waiting for business. Just such an elegant carriage can be seen in the Plaza hack stand in an 1860s photograph by Eadweard Muybridge.

Advertisement for Tomkinson's livery stable, c. 1880. Courtesy of the California History Room, California State Library, Sacramento, California.
The livery stable was an essential feature of any city in the horse-drawn era. If you owned your own horse and carriage, this was where you boarded and stored them; if, like most people, you had neither, this was where you rented or hired them when needed. Liveries were also the mainstay of the hack industry. Independents like John Glover stored or rented their hacks and horses at livery stables, and some stables, like Tomkinson’s, kept their own small fleets of hired carriages and drivers.

As the frontier city settled down into the gilded-age metropolis, institutions like Tomkinson’s catered to “the Elite and Wealth of San Francisco.” For this advertisement (with photo taken by the celebrated firm of Isaiah Taber) Tomkinson rolled out a selection of his best carriages onto Minna. The hackdrivers are in standard cabby attire for the day—tall plug hats, long duster coats, and hackman’s badge. Are those younger members of the Tomkinson family looking down from the second story balcony? This photograph offers a rare glimpse into the vanished working-class culture of the old South of Market alleyways—what the San Francisco Call dismissively termed “Minna street society”—and which would later be depicted by Jack London in stories such as “South of the Slot.”

Advertisement for the Telephone Cab and Carriage Company, 1883

Disruptive technology transformed San Francisco’s cab industry – in the 1870s. San Francisco was one of the first cities anywhere to see dispatch-oriented carriage companies, the precursors to the modern full-service cab fleet. Beginning in 1877, cabs of the United Carriage Company could be ordered from company stands—first by home telegraph, and soon after, by telephone. Visitors from Eastern cities wrote admiringly of the convenience: "When shall we have a similar enterprise in New-York?"

The UCC spawned a group of imitators with similar names, such as the Pacific Carriage Company, and the City Cab and Carriage Company. The small, short-lived Telephone Cab and Carriage Company was ingeniously named after the radical new cutting edge tech of the day. Perhaps catering to tourists, newcomers, or anyone who couldn’t quite remember the name of that-big-cab-company-you-call-by-telephone, the intent was not unlike the "AAA Yellow Airport VIP Taxi" companies you might see today.

The TCCC's owner, P.A. Dolan, was an Irish immigrant who showed a preference for hiring brothers and cousins, also named Dolan. The Dolans had an unfortunate tendency to get into shootouts, at least one of which was linked to Dolan's involvement with Democratic Party machine politics of the day; the Mayor had the power to dole out favourable cabstand locations as rewards for political support, and contests between mayoral candidates could take the form of proxy warfare between rival hack teams on the city streets.

For the story of another carriage company from the era, see The Short, Contentious History of the Gurney Cab Company in San Francisco.

Advertisement for the Mobile Carriage Company, San Francisco Call, 1904.
(California Digital Newspaper Collection)

The first automobile dealers in San Francisco had a problem—most people found their product unfamiliar and frightening. To get those vehicles off the lot, and accustom the public to riding in them, the “motor livery” was born. Vehicles were rented out by the trip or by the hour, with a chauffeur whose job was not only to operate the machine, but to fix it when it broke down.

People were both fascinated and terrified by the early automobile. No clip-clop of horse hooves warned pedestrians of their approach as they zipped down city streets at inhuman speeds of twenty, even thirty miles an hour. Passengers, fired up by watching daredevil auto racers out at the Ingleside track (such as cigar-chomping Barney Oldfield), would urge their chauffeurs to speed on the way back into the city, resulting in spectacular and often gory collisions with streetcars, carriages, and hapless pedestrians.

This 1904 Mobile Carriage Company ad shows a chauffeur and passengers in what looks like a Pierce Arrow. These "Brass Era" motorcars were not ready to replace the horse and carriage. Drivers and passengers were thrown together on open, windblown seats, similarly bundled up in goggles, scarves, and gloves. The sedate carriage, with a closed compartment which preserved the social distinction between driver and passenger, remained the more respectable way to get around town.

Though motor liveries may have started out at “rates less than carriages,” they soon became much more expensive. The city responded by fixing the legal rates of hire, and requiring licenses for both vehicles and their drivers.

Advertisement for Kelly's Stables, San Francisco Call, May 15, 1906.
(California Digital Newspaper Collection)

The Great Earthquake and Fire was, among other things, a transportation nightmare. As tens of thousands tried to flee the city, some of the more entrepreneurial hackmen responded with an early instance of “surge pricing,” charging up to $100 per seat for rides from the Palace Hotel to the ferries. Not all of the city’s hackdrivers tried to cash in on the disaster; the photographic record shows hacks (often sans horse) being used to evacuate household belongings from a residential neighborhood; to form an impromptu barrier on Van Ness; and as temporary housing in a Golden Gate Park refugee camp.

The fire took at least 3,000 lives, reduced most of downtown to smoking rubble, and utterly ruined the upcoming social season for the city’s elite. The Call reported that so many of the city’s carriages had burned that attendees of upper-class events, from marriages to social visits, had to make do with “any kind of an old ‘hack’ such as one saw formerly on street corners and around the park entrance.”

Kelly’s stables, one of the old premier livery stables of the city, had the good fortune to be located just outside the fire line. Less than a month after the devastation, as the city began to rebuild, Kelly’s reassured customers that they were still available “at the old stand,” on Pine near Franklin.

Advertisement for United Carriage Company, San Francisco Blue Book, 1907.

The old meets the new in this 1907 United Carriage Company advertisement. According to one story, the UCC had lost all but five carriages in the 1906 fire; by 1907, the grand old carriage company was rebuilding its fleet, with a new headquarters on Eddy, just off the new auto row along Van Ness. The photos demonstrating the UCC’s catalog of carriages were taken at the foot of the Panhandle, a location charged with significance. The 1903 McKinley Monument, seen in the background, would have reminded San Franciscans of happier, pre-quake days; just across the street stood the Coliseum exhibition hall, which in 1907 hosted San Francisco’s first major automobile show (and yes, the DMV now stands on the Coliseum's former site).

Now with “Rubber Tires and Brakes,” the horse-drawn carriage was still evolving, even in its final years as a significant mode of transportation. As the ad reveals, the UCC had already begun a switch to the motorcar, offering the popular Thomas Flyers for hire alongside its carriages.

The bold front did not save the distinguished old hack company. The United Carriage Company went bankrupt, and its entire stock (including 70 carriages, 95 horses, and 2 automobiles) was auctioned off by creditors in 1909. That same year, the first taxicabs hit the streets of San Francisco.

(Read Part Two.)

Friday, April 10, 2015

“Shared Autonomy” or “Control Society?”

An interesting chart has been making the rounds on the internet and social media. Created by Adam Jonas, a financial analyst at Morgan Stanley, it purports to show “The Four Stages of Mobility,” outlining a transition from today’s car-centric model to tomorrow’s even more car-centric (yet “autonomous”) model.

Jonas charts a movement from 1) Today’s system of automobilty, through 2) the growing “Shared Economy” represented by companies like Uber and Lyft, and 3) a coming stage of “Owned Autonomy” made possible by self-driving cars, to 4) the final stage in which these trends come together as “Shared Autonomy,” in which nobody owns cars, but we are all instead shuttled around cities in driverless taxis straight out of a Robert Heinlein novel.

There is one big problem with this: if these trends continue, the future they are taking us towards will not be as rosy as the term “shared autonomy” suggests. Because although Jonas has correctly identified two important trends which are taking us along this path, in the chart above these trends are mislabeled – and more importantly, misunderstood. In fact, even the present is not properly represented on the chart.

Here is a more accurate version of the chart:

1. Today. Jonas, not surprisingly, chooses to trace “today’s” model back 100 years, presumably aiming for the “Model T moment” in which technological innovation and the factory system came together to put out a mass-produced, affordable automobile. This was of course an important historical event, but the car industry, and the economy as a whole, moved away from the resulting “Fordist” system a long time ago. A better description for our current system is the “Post-Fordist” condition beginning about 40 years ago. This is not nitpicking. The shift from Fordism to Post-Fordism came with an erosion of workers’ power (goodbye unions) and the resulting “flexibilization” of the workforce. Not coincidentally, this occured along with a flat-lining of real wages, leading to an increasingly unhealthy reliance on lines of credit.

Which means that that “Asset Owned” side of Jonas’s left-right continuum should instead be labelled “Commitment through Debt.” We like to think we own our cars, houses, etc., but often the truth is we owe them.

Recognizing Post-Fordism is important because it sets the stage for the two major trends which, according to the chart, are leading us to the future. These are not as new as we might be tempted to think, but are the continuation of trends which have already been in operation for decades. They represent, not a break with the present, but its continuation into the future.

2. It takes a bit of preternatural naiveté, or obstinacy, for someone to still insist, in 2015, that the so-called “Sharing Economy” has anything to do with sharing. Perhaps for this reason, Jonas prefers the term “shared economy” and highlights the “sharing” of assets made possible by pseudo-taxi companies like Lyft, Uber, and Sidecar. The obvious question arises – if using Uber counts as “sharing” assets, shouldn’t riding the bus, streetcar, or even a plain old taxi, as well? If there is anything new about the “sharing economy,” it isn’t the very old habit of “shared assets.” So what is driving this trend?

What really is going on, is a shifting of economic risk from corporations to workers; the Post-Fordist system taken to the next level. This is Precarious Society. Uber doesn’t have to own any cars, or even hire employees (if they could get away with it, they wouldn’t pay for insurance, either). While Uber, reportedly, rakes in untold riches, the drivers bear all the costs, and risks, of doing business. This is certainly a growing economic trend today, though there isn’t much about it to celebrate.

I’ve labelled this side of the left-right continuum “Access through Credit.” You may be wondering, how is this really different from “Commitment through Debt?” “Credit” and “debt,” of course, are two sides of the same coin. You can’t have one without the other. But there is one thing about coins—it is hard to see both sides at the same time.

So think of these two poles, not as a qualitative opposition, but as a reference to which side of the credit/debt coin is face up, and thus made visible. What makes services like Uber and Lyft convenient is the easy access they provide for any rider with credit. That this credit is also debt is obscured (by getting rid of the physical exchange of money at the end of the ride); even more importantly obscured is the debt drivers commit to as they drive us around in their “own” cars.

3. Jonas’s next stage is “Owned Autonomy.” Having disposed of the chimera of “ownership,” let’s focus instead on this word, “autonomy.” As attractive as it sounds, the term is being used not to refer to the “autonomy” of riders in driverless vehicles, but to that of the vehicles themselves. Apparently “they” will no longer need “us.” It’s a vision straight out of those unintentionally dystopian commercials for the “internet of things” in which all the important business is automated while humans are reduced to standing around, looking useless and disoriented, and occasionally getting in the way.

But really, “autonomy” is still not the right word for it. Just as the old-fashioned “automobile” was never truly “auto-mobile,” but relied, not only on human drivers, but an entire concrete infrastructure built into cities and smeared across the countryside, so the interconnected “autonomous vehicles” of the future will be even more dependent on the interconnected systems of which they are part. To see this as “autonomy” is to miss the deeper reality, which will be control. Which is why the important movement reflected in the chart’s up-down continuum is not away from “Human Drivers” to “Autonomous” cars, but from a relatively decentralized system (which relies on large numbers of people knowing how to drive) to an increasingly centralized system (relying on the specialized knowledge of a small number of people who design and manage the system).

And why do we need these “autonomous” vehicles in the first place? We can of course hope that driverless cars will be safer, and more ecologically sustainable than cars today, but that is not at all the reason why they are being built. Self-driving cars are just a benchmark along the path to computerized systems that can solve complex, real-world problems on the fly. The biggest reason to want to create such a system is to reduce the power of labor, by reducing the knowledge that workers are required to have to do any given job. This goal – increasing Control of Knowledge – is the whetstone that hones the cutting edge of today’s push toward automation, including the “robot car.” More important than the technology is the desired product: a de-skilled workforce provided with just enough information to complete tasks, but not enough to exert control over their own working conditions.

4. Finally, taking the “shared” from “shared economy” and the “autonomy” from “owned autonomy,” Jonas leads us to “Shared Autonomy.” This is certainly a very attractive term, invoking a utopian (“autopian,” says Jonas) blend of both individual self-governance and social responsibility. It evokes the ideal society long championed by visionaries as diverse as Karl Marx, Mikhail Bakunin, Jesus Christ, and Winnie-the-Pooh. And me too! It sounds great, bring it on!

Unfortunately, since our steps along the way, in truth, involve neither “sharing” nor “autonomy,” but instead precarization and control, the fourth stage of Jonas’s chart would be better termed the Control Society (aka "society of control"). This term was coined by French philosophers back in the 80s, and can be counted among those formerly-paranoid visions of the future which Silicon Valley is in the habit of making come eerily true. Gilles Deleuze imagined that in the society of control:

one would be able to leave one’s apartment, one’s street, one’s neighborhood, thanks to one’s (dividual) electronic card that raises a given barrier; but the card could just as easily be rejected on a given day or between certain hours; what counts is not the barrier but the computer that tracks each person’s position—licit or illicit—and effects a universal modulation. (Deleuze 1992: 7)

Gaining mobility by purchasing a car (“Commitment through debt”) is so last century. “Access through credit” is more in line with the dreams of control society. And what better way to control mobility than through self-identifying devices that we willingly purchase and carry, that buy us access into a network enabled by uninterrupted connectivity and surveillance? Meanwhile, the centralized, expensive high tech of the “autonomous” vehicle means that the provision of mobility is likely to consolidate in a few, well-funded, powerful hands. Jonas lists some likely suspects: “Google, Apple, Uber 2.0” (avert!).

Now how utopian does this sound?

The emerging tech of driverless cars makes an interesting point of entry into this question of where our society is going, but we shouldn’t blame the technology itself. The problem isn’t driverless cars, but why we think we need driverless cars (not to mention, cars), why we (in general) are so easily roped into supporting a vision of the future that, should it arrive, will benefit the few more than the many, and be founded on the same irrational, unquestioned presuppositions that underlie our current economic system. It is high time we looked more critically at emerging technologies like the driverless car (and even more importantly, ubiquitous computing), instead of taking their inevitability for granted.

Henry George, writing in 1868 about the increasing penetration, and power, of the railroads in his own time, issued a warning which is just as accurate now as then:

And this in general is the tendency of the time, and of the new era opening before us: to the great development of wealth; to concentration; to the differentiation of classes; to less personal independence among the many and the greater power of the few. (George 1868: 306)

Deleuze, Gilles, “Postscript on the Society of Control,” October, Vol. 59. (Winter, 1992), pp. 3-7.

George, Henry. “What The Railroad Will Bring Us.” The Overland Monthly 1, no. 4 (October 1868): 297–306.