Thursday, December 31, 2015

Sidecar Hits The Curb

One less unicorn to ride. Creative Commons photo by Lance (Flickr).

I know you thought you're a real operator
But I don't know why
All you had was a bankroll, babe
And a glint in your eye 

-- Motörhead

As of tomorrow, journalists accustomed to writing about "rideshare services such as Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar" will have one less word with which to pad their articles. The writing has been on the wall for Sidecar since at least September, when they were described here as the "Myspace of ridesharing." It is a bit ironic that Sidecar has turned out to be the first major TNC to fall, because it was always the most innovative of the three--for instance, Sidecar was the only e-hailing app with pins that looked like Kenny from South Park; what great fun!

Omigod! You killed Kenny!

One of Sidecar's most enduring "innovations" was the very idea of calling their unlicensed cab service "ridesharing" in order to avoid regulation. For this reason above all, the traditional cab industry is probably quite happy to be dancing on Sidecar's grave.

Take it away, Lemmy:

One time you was a real high-stepper
On the high trapeze
But you know you ran out of money
Wound up on your knees

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Taxi Inferno, anthropologist Wallace Zane’s harrowing cab ride through Los Angeles

Cabdriving in Los Angeles; illustration by Gustave Doré.

Who Came Along for the Ride?

In the middle of the road of life I found myself in a shadowy wood, for the straight and narrow path had been lost. Somehow, I had suffered the spiritual death of losing one's way. I was driving a cab in L.A.

So begins Taxi Inferno, a spiraling descent, via taxicab, into the depths of Hell, otherwise known as Los Angeles. It is a fascinating and unusual book—equal parts urban ethnography, cabdriving memoir, and underworld adventure. The story begins when the cabdriver/narrator (loosely based on author Wallace Zane) picks up a drunken and abusive old man who turns out to be none other than Charles Bukowski—or perhaps, the ghost of Charles Buwkoski, or an imposter... And just as Virgil led Dante, so “Bukowski” leads the unnamed anti-hero on a sprawling exploration of the city and the damned who dwell therein. In the author’s words:

I describe it as a death and violence, deceit and fraud, cab-driving, police-chasing translation of Dante's "Inferno." It is written as a mirror of the "Inferno," with Charles Bukowski as the guide instead of Dante's Virgil. Each location in hell corresponds to a neighborhood in Los Angeles, along with its punishments. 

Fun as that sounds, this isn’t a novel trashing LA. The Los Angeles of Taxi Inferno may be Hell, but it's also a lush landscape of human anguish, desire, and deceit. In its own way, the book is a love song to the city, told through the eyes of a lost soul seeking redemption from himself. For all their sinfulness and perfidy, both the city and Bukowski—along with numerous gallons of cheap wine—help the driver in his quest. The result may be the most despairing, soul-revealing, yet grudgingly loving psychogeographic journey through LA since the night Marlowe told himself he wasn’t human.

Taxi Inferno could be read casually on its own, but to get the full experience, you quickly realize you should be reading it side-by-side with Dante’s Inferno. The parallels between the two are numerous and carefully constructed. Zane’s book doesn’t just evoke the Inferno; it is the Inferno, Canto for Canto, transposed to a Los Angeles seen through the eyes of a miserable cabdriver and his drunken psychopomp. Instead of ABANDON ALL HOPE we read WELCOME TO LOS ANGELES; in one of Zane’s most beautiful sequences, the innumerable fires of Dante’s Eighth Circle, “A sinner so enfolded close in each,” become the lights of the city viewed from Mulholland drive. For both faithfulness and originality, Zane’s tribute to Dante rivals Menard’s Quixote.

Road Scholar

Yet what may be most surprising about Taxi Inferno is that this was originally envisioned, not as a work of fiction, nor as a cabdriving memoir, but as a report on the author’s ethnographic study of the taxicab industry in Los Angeles. Zane didn’t just drive a cab; he was a cabdriving anthropologist (though the same could no doubt be said of most cabdrivers, and of more than a few anthropologists). I sent Zane a few questions about his writing process via email; here are his replies:

You said you had originally considered writing this in a more traditionally ethnographic format, but decided instead to go with fiction. Could you discuss why?

I wrote up several outlines and beginnings of chapters on my taxicab research, but it felt too dry to hold my, or any reader’s, interest. When I wrote my earlier ethnography about the altered states of consciousness of an Afro-Caribbean religion, the entire culture was approached in an attitude of wonder at the strange and unknown (Journeys to the Spiritual Lands; Oxford, 1999). Cab drivers and the cab life felt so much just a beat-down version of the ordinary working life all around the industrialized world that I had difficulty presenting the material with any sense of novelty or excitement. My several false starts at writing up the data made me realize I needed to see the cab drivers through eyes I did not yet possess.

How did you come up with the idea of a tour of LA by way of Dante’s Inferno?

I had read the Divine Comedy in English some years prior to my taxicab research. In the process, I came to realize that I was missing something important in a text so canonical. I could appreciate only a portion of the magnitude of the document. I learned Italian to be able to read Dante in the original. When I finally was able to do so with minimal reference to dictionaries, I began to see the music and to be transported by the metaphors. This happened around the time of my ethnographic research amongst the taxicab drivers.

I had been trained as a psychological anthropologist (hence, the altered states research in the Caribbean) and my taxicab research was also a psychological study. The official name of the research project was “The socialization of deceit amongst Los Angeles taxicab drivers.” I was interested in how they cheated their customers, but far more in how they taught each other to cheat and the sanctions against drivers who did not participate in the petty fraud.

A larger question quickly emerged: why do the drivers cheat their customers? The simple answer is that taxicab drivers are at the very bottom of an immense architecture of corruption in Los Angeles. Sometimes, a driver would have to pay over a hundred dollars in small bribes a night just to make a hundred dollars himself. As an Angeleño, that revelation was like a kick in the chest (New York is corrupt, Chicago; not my city, not LA).

In trying to perceive why Dante was so canonical I found I had to read Thomas Aquinas, but more importantly Aristotle’s “Ethics.” Each of these consistently asserted what I came to believe about fraud in Los Angeles: the worst sins are the sins of corrupt governments against their governed subjects.

As I thought about the Inferno particularly (by far, the most exciting part of the “Commedia” for a non-medieval reader), it seemed to me that the ranking of sin by Dante, the weaker sins those of the flesh and the more robust those of the state, matched so closely what I was seeing as a taxicab driver, that I could draw a rather strong parallel. As I sketched out the circles of Dante’s hell, the similarity was too compelling to the taxicab life to leave it alone.

Avoiding spoilers (of course), could you talk about the significance of the narrator’s transformation through the course of the book, and his relationship to Bukowski/Virgil?

Dante’s Inferno portion of the “Commedia” is modeled on Aeneas’ journey to Hades in Virgil’s great poem. That is modeled on Homer’s account of Odysseus. I knew I was entering treacherous sands by calling forth the most important minds the world has known, and, to minimize unflattering comparisons, I could not make my attempt as straightforward as had Virgil or Dante. Mine is a mirror, a sort of a cracked mirror for a man (myself) to observe these hallowed others (to be looked at, close to, with one eye, from the other side of the glass).

I hold the metaphor of the mirror throughout. Dante and Virgil proceed clockwise and Bukowski directs me counterclockwise around Los Angeles. Bukowski's poetry can be thought of as prose presented poetically, and I am pounding out, on my keyboard, a prosaic poesy.

I call the text a translation, though that is probably not fair to the general reader; however, occasionally, in the text, I do refer to it as a translateralization. It began first as a translation, tercet by tercet, from the ancient Italian (Tuscan) to modern English, then turned, translated again, verse by verse, to taxicab idiom, which for me meant not only language but ethnographic description.

Virgil, the confident guide at the beginning of the Inferno, becomes confused and full of missteps the further down they travel; Dante responds with increasing contempt. Bukowski begins as a tottering old man, barely able to stand, and not only increases in competence the deeper they journey into incontinence, deceit, and fraud, but becomes heroic in his guidance. By the thirtieth canto, the narrator of Taxi Inferno is as fully convinced of Bukowski’s righteousness as he can be of anyone’s, and follows Bukowski through Cocytus’ coccyx, to Hyperion, the destination of all the fecality of LA; willingly, thrillingly, screaming at a hundred miles an hour. The narrator begins the story lost, with no aim but money and sleep; by the end, he is redeemed through poetry, possessing nothing but meter, memory, and a new set of glasses to see the world.

You paint a picture of the character, background, and experiences of the narrator/driver; how autobiographical is this character?

One can think of ethnographic research in general as first-person science, making nearly all ethnographic reports autobiographical, in the sense that the anthropologist is writing, or distilling, what was seen first-hand: an account, in a way, of a portion of the writer's life.

Dante's Virgil is not Virgil's Virgil, and my Bukowski is not Bukowski's Bukowski (or even Chinaski), though close. And something similar is happening with all of these narrators. The narrator of Taxi Inferno is me to some extent, but only a portion of me, or perhaps, we should say, historically me. It is me that chews on the past, and, like a junkyard dog, won't let it go, however dirty and depleted it becomes. That is only one of the many mes, and I think almost everyone can say the same.

I indicate in the afterward that some parts of the story are what happened in a usual sense, and that one can tell by paying attention to the person, tense, and mood. Most of the narration uses a first person pronoun predicated with a third person verb, a violation to be sure, but one that hints that this part is not to be taken as literal historical fact (but happens to be a more straight translation that the rest of it). Where I employ the ordinary preterite, a simple statement of action, that is what did occur. With that in mind, one can see that my taxicab research was also one hell of an adventure.

Taxi Inferno is available from Amazon.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

“It Ain’t Just A Job, Folks!” The New Deep City Press, 1975-1978

San Francisco's New Deep City Press, with cover art by Jamie Maddox. Courtesy of Ralph Hoffschildt.

The New Deep City Press was a uniquely San Franciscan creation. Published from 1975 to 1978, it was a magazine of short stories, poetry, art, and journalism produced mostly by San Francisco cabdrivers, and largely—though not at all exclusively—about the experience of driving a cab in San Francisco. The DCP was one of the flagships of what journalist Tamim Ansary called the “literature of work,” a literary movement that brought out the creative expressions, not just of cabdrivers, but of longshoremen, factory workers, and other working class writers. It was a product of San Francisco’s longstanding and artistic underground publishing tradition. And it remains, today, a compelling window into the bohemian culture of San Francisco during the 1970s.

Most of the regular contributers were cabdrivers, such as Jesus Portillo, Andy Araneo, Catherine Baker, Marty Breslow, and “social worker behind the wheel” David Frankel. Jamie Maddox drew the “Maxie the Taxi” comic strip, and Jimmy “The Glove” Vetter provided a regular column on how to play craps. Besides cabdrivers, there were writings by journalist Sandra Katzman, and poet-longshoreman George Benet, along with cameos by folks like Gary Snyder, Spain Rodriguez, and Warren Hinckle.

For years, only scattered issues of the DCP were available, typically for $40 an issue on eBay or Amazon. Now, with the permission of DCP publisher Ralph Hoffschildt, six of the original eleven issues will be available as pdfs on the Taxi Library site, hosted by Luxor Cab’s Charles Rathbone.

Via email, I talked to DCP publisher Ralph Hoffschildt (Duke of the Mission, and a medallion holder at Yellow Cab), and editors David Bolton (now teaching writing at the University of Maryland) and Mark Joseph (now a novelist living in the East Bay) about the origins of the New Deep City Press.

Origins of the DCP

The New Deep City Press was the brainchild of cabdriver Don Fassett:
Dave Bolton: The first meeting of the DCP took place in the Doggie Diner on Lombard. There were about a half dozen of us. Don Fassett, a cabdriver who hailed from PA, had called us together. Don was a great salesman and would go on to launch a number of businesses. He was always coming up with ideas. ... 
The fat man sported a foot-long beard, had a twinkle in his eye, a wonderful belly laugh, and sold lids of dope out of his City cab. On this particular evening, he wanted to start a magazine and he wanted us to do it.
City Cab itself was a crucial part of the story. In the 1970s, according to Examiner writer Andy Meisler, “every third cab on the street [was] being piloted by a frustrated Faulkner, Sondheim, Heifitz or Hoffman.” City Cab was where these taxicab virtuosos collected. As Hoffschildt describes it:
Ralph Hoffschildt: City Cab was at 2015 McKinnon, behind the water department, around the corner from the produce market. We had a couple of gas pumps and a tin roof and driver’s room with a pool table. That’s where Jimmy the Glove would fade the main...shoot craps among each other, no house. He’d cut the pot a bit for running the game. Cool Breeze was always playin’ the pin ball machine. The old tin roof building is still there.... If those walls could only talk.... 
Dave Bolton: Anyway, Don was the glue in the beginning. He approached his friend Ralph [Hoffschildt] with his idea, and Ralph, being a man of great energy, imagination, and a degree in physics, ran with the idea, teaching himself the intricacies of publishing along the way. I do believe Ralph came up with the name of the magazine.
Yeah, what about that name? Was there ever an old Deep City Press? Hoffschildt reveals:
Ralph Hoffschildt: Originally, as I recall, I thought I’d just call it “Deep Press,” id est “Depress.” But Don Fassett was too optimistic. “City” and “New” just made for more syllables.
So there you have it.

A Labor of Love

Mark Joseph described his introduction to the Deep City crowd:
Mark Joseph: In 1975 I was working in a warehouse at 1st and Folsom in San Francisco when I met Dave Bolton at a party in North Beach. He told me he drove for City Cab where a bunch of drivers created a little mimeograph magazine called the Deep City Press. I gave him a short story which he passed on to the publisher, the head dispatcher at City Cab, Ralph Hoffschildt... after Ralph read it we talked on the phone and he said the DCP could publish my story... And by the way, would you like to drive for City Cab?
Today, accustomed as we are to laser printers and computer desktop publishing, it may be hard to imagine just how much work went into small press publishing as recently as the 1970s—especially for a beautifully printed four-color publication like the DCP. Hoffschildt was the man at the helm for the hours of labor involved:
Ralph Hoffschildt: The equipment I used was German. It was a Gestetner printing machine and a Gestefax to spark vinal stencils. The machines worked in tandem and were designed for each other. The equipment cost five or six thousand bucks. A considerable sum in 1975....
I had four ink guns: one each for yellow, red, blue, and black (not yellow, magenta, and cyan as in offset and computer printers today.) The Gestafax could separate colors. I would make a stencil for yellow, another for red, and another for blue. I could and did overlay black when needed with still another stencil. I would print all yellow sheets first (usually about 2200, losing around 200 to misalignment), spread them out on the garage floor to dry. Then I would clean the printer drums and change ink guns (the ink was in large tubes attached to the ink gun), then run the dry yellow sheets and overlay them with red, let dry, clean, change guns, and overlay blue and again same process if I overlaid black. 
Each color run I did standing at the printer adjusting manually with knobs the alignment of each color. They had to align or register sideways, lengthwise, and stay straight front to rear (no “fishtailing.”) If I saw any misalignment I would work the knobs to correct it. The last cover (front, back, and inside) went through the machine 9 times. ...Doing all this for just that sheet probably took around 12 hours of constant printing spread out, of course, over days.... 
After it was printed, it was collated, folded, stapled, and trimmed—all manually. The last issues were 64 pages or 16 sheets printed front and back. I used a large chart board to map it. Pages 1 & 64 (front page and back page), pages 2 & 63 (inside covers), pages 3 & 62, pages 4 & 61, etc. went together so that it folded into a standard looking little homemade magazine. 
Occasionally, even I had to write something just for filler. But, as you can see, mine is the tactile side. I have to make it, touch it, and look at it.
Hoffschildt’s editorials, of course, served as far more than mere filler; they anchor each issue, keeping the wide ranging content on mission, from anointing the DCP “the permanent record... of our adventures, or misadventures” in one of the earliest issues, to reminding readers of the final issue that “this is our soul. This is another true life cab story from deep in the City.”

The Deep City’s Legacy
Mark Joseph: Ralph produced the magazine in his basement, printing it in four colors on a fancy Gestetner mimeograph, and we—the drivers and writers—sold it on the street to drivers and anybody else with a buck. I distributed it to several SF bookstores, and at one point in 1977-8, around there somewhere, Shig, the manager at City Lights, told me the DCP was the best selling little magazine in the history of City Lights Books. I don't know if that was true, but it was one of the proudest and finest moments of my writing career.
By turns witty, serious, silly (Portillo’s “Cab Array” musical), tragic, and poignant (Joseph’s “Death on Watchman Way,” about the murder of a cabdriver)—the DCP gives us a glimpse into the cultural politics of San Francisco during an era that, to borrow Chris Carlsson’s phrase, “shook the city.” Most notably for cab history, the DCP chronicled the collapse of Yellow cab and its rebirth as a cooperative; as time would show, this would also result in the collapse of the cabdriver as employee and the switch to the “independent contractor” model over which Uber is facing lawsuits today. More generally, the DCP is a record of an important period in San Francisco’s history, when the city was still capital of the Left Coast, rather than just the nearest convenient urban laboratory for Silicon Valley’s imagineers to conduct experiments in. It is a chapter in the city’s longstanding individualistic, vibrant culture, which many fear is threatened today by gentrification and homogenization. If Uber gets its way:
Ralph Hoffschildt: The taxicab industry in all of its former fascinating color and history may well die and become as bland and boring as the drab Google bus techies swarming these beautiful hills on Baghdad by the Bay.
It is ironic that San Francisco—birthplace of the Uber and Lyft anti-cab apps—is also home to a rich and varied tradition of literature by and about cabdrivers, perhaps more than any other city. The DCP was neither the first, nor the last word in this tradition. It was preceeded by the cabdriving-inspired works of beat poet Lew Welch and minimalist composer Steve Reich; and followed by Mike Weiss’s novels about cabdriving sleuth Ben Henry, and Emil Lawrence’s long-running “Night Cabbie” column. The tradition is continued today by writer/drivers like MC Mars, Alex Sack, and Kelly Dessaint.

(To read some much, much older San Francisco cabdriver stories, check out “Big Tom’s Antique Hack Yarns.”)

Wouldn’t it be great someday, to see the New Deep City Press once again gracing the window of City Lights, this time as a collected volume? For now, at least, the pdfs are available for download from Taxi Library.

The Deep City crew outside of City Cab. Courtesy of Ralph Hoffschildt.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

November 28, 1910: San Francisco's Taxicab Drivers Go On Strike

Though the large cab companies fought the union, some small companies such as the Blue Moon Taxicab Service supported the cause. Advertisement from the San Francisco Call, December 2, 1910 (California Digital Newspaper Collection)

For most of the Twentieth Century, taxicab drivers in San Francisco were represented by the Chauffeurs' Union, Local 265 of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, founded in October, 1909.

The Chauffeurs' Union faced many troubles in its first year of existence. There was a turf conflict with the old Hackmen's union, which was faced down with the aid of the Labor Council; there was competition from the "Professional Chauffeurs' Association," a fake "union" invented by garage owners and the auto industry in order to keep drivers from joining the real union. By the end of 1910 local 265 was nevertheless ready to take on the five biggest taxicab companies in the city, starting on November 28, 1910.

Drivers at that time were earning a commission of 20% of the meter, which rarely came to more than $3 (about $70 in today's money) for a 13 hour shift; out of this they had to pay for their own gasoline. The strikers demanded a daily wage of $3.50, free gasoline, and a closed shop.

San Francisco was at that time in the bidding to host the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, and the city fathers didn't want news of labor unrest tarnishing the city's image. So many of the details of the strike come from newspapers in other cities. For example:

Small Strike Bitter Affair

Although Only 100 Men Are Involved In San Francisco Taxicab Strike, a Half Dozen Arrests Have Been Made and Score Shots Fired.

San Francisco, Cal., Nov. 30.--Although not more than 100 men are involved, the strike of the taxicab drivers, which was inaugurated here Monday night, already half a dozen arrests have been made and a score of shots fired. 
President Carl Dreger of the Chauffeurs’ union and five other union men today were admitted to bail, following their arrest for alleged stoning of a nonunion cab. The police are investigating a shooting affray at the same corner early today, in which Richard Kemp, a non-union driver, emptied his revolver into a crowd of union sympathizers who had stoned his cab, breaking his windshield and the glass door of the body. Two women were in the vehicle at the time, it is said. 
The drivers are standing pat on their demand for 20 per cent of the cash fares and free gasoline. Three of the five companies against which the strike was instituted have given in.

Medford Mail Tribune, Wednesday, November 30, 1910

The strike lasted for two weeks and ended with a compromise. Drivers got their free gasoline but remained with 20% of the meter; while some small companies unionized, the two largest companies (Taxicab Company of California, and Pacific Taximeter) kept the open shop.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Sidecar, the MySpace of Ridesharing

During Friday morning rush hour, only one Sidecar is available in all of San Francisco.

Sidecar, which once had the largest network of “ridesharing” vehicles in San Francisco, is now barely on the map.

When I was conducting interviews in 2012 and 2013 with drivers for the brand-new app-based ridesharing services Sidecar, Lyft, and Tickengo, Sidecar was the largest and busiest of the three. Back then, all three companies (along with Uber, which at that time dispatched only licensed limousines and taxicabs), were under a cease-and-desist order from the state Public Utilities Commission. Lyft, in those early days, kept a lid on the number of drivers and passengers (and even shut down its app at night); Tickengo offered only prearranged, as opposed to on-demand, rides. That left Sidecar as the first “ridesharing” app with a network of drivers large enough to compete effectively with the city's licensed cab fleets.

What a difference a few years make. Uber, after initially accusing Sidecar and the rest of “regulatory arbitrage,” changed its mind and rebranded its mid-range UberX service into what would become the largest and most well-known “ridesharing” service. Lyft expanded, ditching its controversial mustaches along the way. Other startups joined the mix, and at one point there were at least six companies offering “ridesharing” service in San Francisco: Hitch, Lyft, Sidecar, Summon/InstantCab, UberX,  and Wingz/Tickengo.

But today, after “pivoting” out of the crowded ridesharing space into the at-least-as-crowded courier/delivery space, Sidecar’s passenger app invites the sort of “abandoned amusement park” metaphor once reserved for MySpace.

Over three days, 9 was the largest number of Sidecars I could find onscreen at one time.

Most of the time, Sidecar showed between one and three cars available throughout the city.

Like MySpace, Sidecar is still around. They still describe "ridesharing" as their business model; there just aren't very many Sidecars available for giving rides. And of course, the app screen only reveals so much. How many drivers are off the screen, giving deliveries or rides? How many of the drivers that we do see are Uber and Lyft drivers who, already running both of those apps at once, are still occasionally turning on Sidecar as a third option? And are they finding any business when they do?

Sidecar was not the first of San Francisco’s ridesharing services to bow out of the market. Tickengo changed its name to Wingz, and has scaled down to prearranged airport rides. 

The Hitch app has been defunct since the company's acquisition by Lyft.

Hitch was acquired by Lyft in 2014.

Summon's app hasn't shown any available cars for months.

The app for Summon (originally InstantCab), which dispatched both licensed cabs and “community drivers,” consistently shows no available drivers.

It is interesting that, despite predictions about the collapse of the licensed cab industry, it is the field of "ridesharing" services which has, so far, been dramatically shrinking.

Flywheel is the dominant taxi-hailing app in San Francisco.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Update on TNC Horse-Hiring

Update on last week's post: the California Public Utilities Commission may (or may not) crack down on renting or leasing “ridesharing” vehicles by Uber and other TNCs.

On Thursday, August 13th, the PUC received a string of complaints from taxi drivers during the public comment portion of its meeting in San Francisco. Concerns about Uber’s Xchange Leasing, and similar horse-hiring programs, were at the forefront of the list. First to speak was taxi driver Kim Waldron, who pointed out:

I would like to remind you that the PUC created the TNC program. It was based on using a family car, not a leased car, by the day, week or any other period, which seems to be the common practice now. They also cannot be loaned or rented to a third party. By not acting on any of these practices, the PUC is breaking its own rules... (PUC video).

Although the Commissioners reportedly responded “with the usual vacant stares,” a PUC spokesperson did tell reporters that the PUC would be investigating the new horse-hiring practices:

"A TNC (Transportation Network Company) permit does not authorize the use of vehicles other than those privately owned by the driver," said commission spokeswoman Constance Gordon, who confirmed that the commission is probing Uber's leasing program, as well as a number of smaller companies that offer rental and leasing options to drivers. (Heather Somerville)

Nevertheless, Gordon implied that the problem may not lie with Uber or the other companies that rent or lease to TNC drivers, but with the regulations which the PUC had adopted in order to create TNCs as a new category distinct from taxicabs. Foremost among these was the “personal vehicles” provision; since taxicabs in California are, by law, regulated at the city rather than the state level, this arbitrary distinction was necessary for the PUC to be able to extend regulatory authority over for-profit “ridesharing.”

Gordon told the LA Times:

"It's a brand-new thing. We said when we first set regulations that we'd probably be changing them," she said. "There are things we didn't think of when we first regulated them, so we're adjusting." (Andrea Chang)

But, as I detailed here last week, renting or leasing to cabdrivers is not at all a new thing, but a very old thing. So old, in fact, that the technical term for it is “horse-hiring.”

The fact of the matter is that, when the PUC created the TNC as a new legal category, it was not so much recognizing a “new” form of car service, as creating a new, state-regulated taxi industry which competes directly with the already existing city-regulated taxi industry. That this state-regulated taxi industry should then fall into the same organizational and economic patterns as the traditional city-regulated cab industry should not really be a surprise.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Spread of TNC Horse-Hiring

A TNC horse-hiring advertisement. Source: Craigslist.
For legal purposes, “Transportation Network Companies” (or TNCs) such as Uber and Lyft are defined as services that “facilitate rides between passengers and private drivers using their own personal vehicles.” Increasingly, however, drivers for these and similar “ridesharing” platforms will be driving cars that they have leased or rented.

Last week, Uber announced its Xchange Leasing program, which is designed to expand Uber’s driver pool to include those who do not have—or do not want to ply for hire with—their own vehicles. With this leasing program, and a rental program being piloted in select cities, Uber is taking a step into a growing phenomenon in the “ridesharing” industry. Numerous companies, large and small, are renting or leasing cars to drivers to operate on the Lyft or Uber platform.

This is just another example of the ways in which “ridesharing” services are recreating aspects of the taxicab industry. In this case, what is being recreated is a very old practice—to wit, horse-hiring.

Horse-hiring in a London cabyard. From Vance Thompson, "The London Cabby," 1904. Courtesy of Taxi-Library.

“Horse-hiring,” as the name suggests, goes back to the horse-drawn era. A would-be cabdriver, who lacked their own horse and cab, could rent these—by the shift, day, week, or month—from a hack company or from a neighborhood livery stable. The driver would pay the owner a set fee for the vehicle, and keep the rest of however much money they were able to make during the period of the lease. As a Parisian cabdriver explained it in 1903:
The day begins at six o'clock. 'Tis then I get my first horse and pay my day––eighteen francs, at present; sometimes the rate is higher, sometimes lower; if it rains the patron puts up the price; if there is a fête day he puts it up––for the day of the Grand Prix we paid thirty francs this year.... And we do what we can. Here a bourgeois and there a bourgeois and so the day goes. (from Vance Thompson, “The Paris Cabman,” 1903)

Horse-hiring was eclipsed in the Twentieth Century by the spread of the employee-cabdriver model, in which companies tracked cab income using the newfangled taximeter, and split the earnings with drivers (this is one of the reasons why Uber, which takes 20% to 25% of each fare, is currently faced with class action lawsuits for treating its “independent contractor” drivers as employees).

But horse-hiring never completely went away--though it now involved the rental of cars, not of horses. During the Depression it was often the mode of choice for smaller fleets:
Horsing - horse-hiring - A small fleet owner, with 18 or 20 cabs, hires a driver to take car out, buy his own gas and oil, and pay the company $5.00 a day for the cab. What he makes above this is his own. This practice is called “horsing.” (from Marion Charles Hatch, "Stories, Poems, Jargon of Hack Drivers," 1938).

The short-term commitment made possible through horse-hiring created a flexible, intermediate model between the independent driver, who owned and operated a single cab, and the employee driver who worked for the big fleets. With the collapse of the employee-driver model in the 1970s and 1980s, many large fleets turned to horse-hiring; this led to the independent contractor status shared today by cabdrivers and “ridesharing” drivers alike.

It was only a matter of time before horse-hiring emerged in the newest and fastest-growing branch of the cab industry: ”ridesharing.”

TNC horse-hirers come in all sizes, big and small. Last summer, I watched the spread of TNC horse-hiring advertisements in Craigslist’s Jobs-Transport section. First appearing in San Francisco, these spread rapidly to Los Angeles and other large Western cities such as Phoenix and Dallas. A larger horse-hirer with more funding and media coverage is Breeze, which started in San Francisco and has since spread to five other cities; other large players include HyreCar, a horse-hiring marketplace available nation-wide (though spottily), and Flexdrive, a Cox subsidiary which rents cars to Uber drivers in several Southern cities.

And now Uber itself is getting into the game.

For drivers, the attraction of horse-hiring is clear. As many ridesharing drivers have discovered, driving your own car as a taxi adds up to a lot of wear and tear on your personal vehicle. The more miles you drive, the more your car depreciates in value; an accident could result in painful out-of-pocket expenses, and put you out of work until your car gets repaired. Rideshare drivers in many states are still in legal limbo regarding insurance, unsure of what kind to buy, or how, and often avoiding the issue by hiding the fact from their insurers that they drive for hire.

Horse-hiring does away with all of those problems. Many leases cover maintenance, or even include insurance; when a vehicle gets worn down, or is involved in an accident, the lease driver can just switch it for another. Although renting a car involves a higher up-front cost (these are businesses, after all), that is a cost the driver knows ahead of time, unlike the uncertain costs of maintenance, repairs, and insurance claims which fall in the lap of the owner-driver. Fleet owners enjoy economies of scale over individual car owners; if horse-hiring leases reflect these savings, renting could even be cheaper than owning for TNC drivers.  The “ridesharing” movement has shifted many of the risks of taxi operation onto the drivers; horse-hiring is a way for drivers to shrug off some of those risks.

This San Francisco horse-hirer offers drivers a range of leasing options. Source: Craigslist.

Horse-hiring in the TNC world is still young, and different companies are experimenting with different versions (longer or shorter term rentals? insurance included or not? mileage caps or no mileage caps?). However, it can be expected to grow. This should not be surprising; it is just another way that the development of the “ridesharing” industry is recreating economic structures and relationships which have long existed within the cab industry.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

1906: SPEED MADNESS on the Corbett Road!

Upper Market and Corbett, 15 years after the events in this story. Courtesy of San Francisco History Center, San Francisco Public Library.

The year is 1906, just three months after the earthquake and fire. Most of San Francisco lies in ruins. A group of friends, along with a visitor from back East who "came to the city to view the ruins," seek to "get back to normal conditions" by taking a whirl out to the beach in automobiles...

...only to succumb to the temptations of... SPEED MADNESS!!!

For added ambience, click on the song lyrics (below) to hear the soundtrack.

From the San Francisco Call, 29 July 1906:



TO A gentle providence, in the code of which speed madness is not listed with the capital offenses, W. A. Emerick, society, club and business man, can offer thanks that some grim carver of tombstones is not chiseling on a shaft to mark his grave this epitaph:

Here rests at last a restless man;
In a race with death his auto ran;
Who lost? Why lies he in this silent bed?
He lost, of course; death won. 'Nuf ced!"

But, even as it is, it was with difficulty that the gaunt king of the valley of the shadow was driven from the bedside of Emerick. With a crown that is cracked and a body racked he tosses, sometimes in pain, sometimes in delirium, as a phantom car hurls him into imagination's eternity, at his home, 1245 O'Farrell street. Guarding his life Is Dr T. C. Macdonald. "He is improving," said the physician yesterday. "Consciousness returns at intervals. He will get well." And this is how it happened.


Thursday evening, dinner through and the cigars passed round, Emerick's mind swept back to the joys of anteconflagration days. "Let's get back to normal conditions,” he said to the merry party around him, "and take a whirl through the park in automobiles." Agreed. Two big touring cars soon wheezed up to the door. In one Mr. and Mrs. David Fox, W. W. Collins and Mrs. Mallory, who conducts the O'Farrell street home, were seated. In the other. Emerick and Miss Mallory were comfortably installed. "To the Cliff House" was the order to the chauffeurs, and off rolled the "devil cars."
The trip through the park was uneventful: the Cliff House was visited and the start for home was made. All went well until they traveled past Mike Sheehan's Inn, whence came in rousing tones the song: 

"Let's fly, too," said Emerick. “Let's race. Smoke up, boys; let'r out."

Caps were pulled down; goggles adjusted. The two chauffeurs leaned forward, touched a lever here, a lever there and off they rushed through the night. Speed madness, they say, has been Emerick's failing, the terror of his friends and the joy of life to him. As though it caught his thrill his auto plowed forward and soon was victor in the spurt. "Good-night, we're going home." shouted Fox from the vanquished car, and turning around, headed back for the South Drive.


"We'll come home along the Corbett road and see if we can't beat them out." said Emerick. "Advance your spark to the limit and give 'er all the benzine she'll eat." The chauffeur obeyed and the car sped through the dark like a comet astray until just at the spot where, not long ago, dare-devil Jack Baird was killed for his folly.

Perhaps it was the same rut that turned Jack Baird's machine a somersault and crushed out his life that ripped the wheel from the hands of Emerick's chauffeur. Like a giant acrobat the car leaped into the air, turned clear over, righted and stood still.

In the road lay Emerick, bleeding, covered with dust and gasping. Hanging by her gown from a barbed wire fence at the roadside but little injured was Miss Mallory. Still gripping his seat was the chauffeur, who affirms with wide eyes and raised hand that there's where he sat through all the tumble. Hurrying to Miss Mallory's side the chauffeur tore her gown from the barbs and assisted her into the automobile. Then he dragged Emerick to the car and lifted him in. A tire was flat and two of the four cylinders of the engine were out of commission, but the car responded to his skill and moved off for home.


Their arrival at the O'Farrell-street dwelling threw the Mallory household into wild excitement. Dr. Macdonald was hurriedly summoned and for a time his prognosis was unfavorable. But yesterday Emerick brightened. Now the physician says he will recover. Many weeks will pass before Miss Mallory's nerves are quiet again and like the beaten pugilist, the chauffer's courage has suffered a permanent scar.

Emerick is senior member of the firm of Emerick & Duncan, brushes and cordage, 1245 O'Farrell street; David Fox was chief clerk at the destroyed Russ House; Collins resides in Alameda. He is a member of a wealthy Eastern family and came to the city to view the ruins. For all of them automobiling has lost its charm.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

[Your Job] is a Video Game

Video games, and video game theory, provide insight into the ways ubiquitous mobile computing will be used to transform social interaction.

Cabdriving is a video game!
K-ching! K-ching!
That’s the name of the game!

– MC Mars, “Cabdriving is a Video Game”

I’m going to Yerba Buena Gardens,” said the friendly young man. “You know where that is, right?”

Of course I know where that is, and as luck would have it, we were only a few blocks away. With a few taps of the screen, I navigated my car south and east from the Tenderloin, crossing Market at Fourth and coming up along the main entrance to Yerba Buena Gardens on Mission Street. Nothing happened; the passenger did not get out.

Damn, is this game frozen again? There should be a flag here to mark my passenger’s drop-off location. I pinched and spread the map to zoom out, and then saw it: the flag was planted way over in the intersection of Third and Howard, on the far opposite corner of the park.

Oh, of course. I was playing UberDrive, Uber’s new cabdriving (okay, “ridesharing”) simulation/game/recruiting tool. My virtual passenger, I realized, could not get out anywhere but at whatever specific location Uber’s GPS imagined to be “Yerba Buena Gardens.” Unfortunately, most of the streets around here are one-way, in the wrong direction. I maneuvered around three long city blocks, finally tapped the flagged intersection on the map, and watched the little car icon pull up. “Best ride ever!” beamed the passenger. Another five star rating!

According to Uber’s website,

UberDRIVE was designed as a fun and engaging resource for our driver-partners to hone their navigation skills if they choose to. It’s also a great way for prospective drivers to experience firsthand what it’s like to drive with Uber –– there are links to sign up and start the screening process from directly within the game.

Hone your navigation skills? Tapping intersections on a map is a far cry from the experience of actually navigating through San Francisco’s downtown streets. I suppose UberDrive could help inexperienced drivers learn which streets are one way, and how the street grids connect across Market. Experience firsthand what it’s like to drive with Uber? As a training tool, the game is hardly realistic: every single passenger was polite, no one ever cancelled, no one threw up in the back seat, or tried to squeeze in more passengers than seatbelts; everyone was at their pinned location and ready to go when I rolled up. And every single passenger gave me five stars. In other words, they were completely unlike many Uber passengers.

UberDrive is, in fact, just a poor copy of a much more interesting game – driving for Uber. The main innovation of Uber, and other smartphone-enabled “e-hailing” car services, is the insertion of a new interface into the human-to-human, on-the-street interactions between drivers and passengers. For drivers, the smartphone screen works like the little map in the corner of a first-person video game, a HUD that links the immersive environment of the city street back to the digital space of the game world. Each "ping" that alerts drivers to incoming hails is accompanied by a game-like cutscene showing concentric circles radiating from the hailer's location; drivers can log in to a "dashboard" offering "Partner Rewards" such as discounts on gas and oil changes, which drivers "unlock" by completing a set amount of quests... I mean, rides...

The interface allows the game designers at Uber, Lyft, etc., several tools for influencing the in-game behavior of both drivers and passengers: “surge pricing,” the five-star ratings system, and most importantly, the affective framing of “ridesharing” as different from (“Uber” than) the mundane experience of riding in a cab. This isn’t like those old taxicabs with their “inconvenient meatspace hailing”: it’s interactive tech, you know, more like a video game.

There is a name for this combination of storytelling appeal and software-mediated control: the allegorithm, which means the unity of allegory and algorithm. This unity comes into play when, for example, a player satisfies a game’s algorithms by hitting a series of keyboard buttons with precise timing, while, within the storyline or "allegory," they embrace the idea that they are killing orcs with a flaming sword. Or maybe they tap a smartphone screen, while imagining that they are driving passengers around SoMa. But the allegorithm really comes into its own when it is deployed with mobile interfaces into “augmented reality.” Ingress, you are already thinking; but you should really think Uber.

For the inelegance (and questionable pronounceability) of “allegorithm”, you can blame the word’s coiners, video game theorists Alexander Galloway and McKenzie Wark. But as a concept, it is of great importance for understanding how mobile interfaces are already connecting with and transforming social interaction, and how they will increasingly be used to do so in the near future.

By saying that allegorithms transform social interaction into a “video game” I do not mean that they are making the “real world” somehow “less real” or less serious. The goal of gamification is not the distortion of reality behind some kind of mystifying curtain or spectacle, but the improvement of “meatspace” reality through the deployment of design lessons learned from game development. In practice, this means carefully manipulating the kinds of information and choices available to players, studying their motivations in order to encourage desired behaviors, and inventing a compelling storyline through which players can make sense of the "game." The results can range from the benign to the sinister, from the sublime to the laughable, and we will be seeing more and more of these as the revolution in ubiquitous, mobile computing continues to roll out.

In the meantime, it can be useful to observe Uber’s allegorithmic gamification of cabdriving to assess how these initiatives will play out, and what successes or failures they are likely to encounter. The allegorithm needs, above all, a narrative which participants want to, and are able to, buy into; Uber (and its imitators) have shown great success with this so far, but how long can this be kept up? With any ubiquitously deployed allegorithm, the question arises as to how well the framing survives its insertion into the immersive “real world” environment. As I will discuss below, the success of the cabdriving-game deployed by Uber and others like it depends on the already gamelike aspects of cabdriving as a job; but risks coming apart when running up against the contradictions of cabdriving as work, and when the game designers, or the allegorithm itself, fail to predict or account for the real world complexity that players will encounter.

And as with any social transformation, we need to keep questioning. How good are these games? Are these the games we really want to play?

Crazy Taxi: from digital game-world to physical-world toy. Creative Commons photo by Tatton Partington.

Cabdriving was, of course, already a video game – Crazy Taxi – and the story I was told goes like this. Three San Francisco cabdrivers had the idea to design a board game based on their job. They designed a board loosely based on San Francisco, with pieces that looked like cabs, which the players moved about town looking for paying customers, the winner being the one who made the most money in a set number of turns. Then one day one of the designers (the driver who told me the story) was told by his partners that they had sold the idea to a game company for a few thousand dollars. A few years later, Crazy Taxi hit the arcades, though as a video game rather than a board game.

True story? It is hard to tell. Sega (producer of the game) attributes the idea to a Japanese game designer, not three San Francisco cabdrivers. Yet the original game in the franchise was clearly based on San Francisco, complete with its vertiginous hills, cable cars, and a choice of three bohemian taxi drivers as avatars. And the game captures at least some of the fun part of driving a cab in San Francisco. When I quit driving, I played the game as a way to enjoy some of the addicting aspects of the job. It was sort of like a nicotene patch for cabdriving.

UberDrive, in contrast, is designed to be a gateway drug—a free sample to get you hooked, to pull you into the deeper game of “meatspace” driving. Every few minutes the gameplay is interrupted by an appeal to start driving for Uber in real-life. “No Thanks,” I click, and go back to playing pretend cabdriver.

These games work because real-world cabdriving is, inherently, in many ways game-like. It is full of short, achievable objectives and quick rewards, won in exchange for taking calculable risks. It is more than a little like gambling, and can be as addicting, given the right personality. No matter how bad your luck gets, the player knows there are new possibilities waiting around the corner.

Driving in the city requires, besides patience and strength of will, ingenuity at puzzle-solving; as a passenger once observed while I threaded through traffic, “So you just basically play Tetris all day?” Or as San Francisco’s hip hop cabdriver MC Mars puts it:

cutting through lanes like fish veins
on Van Ness with the finesse of a sushi chef
Truly/deftly/ I’m the surfer with the motorcycle mentality/ when it gets gnarly/ I hit the slot between the herd and the Harley/ tourist with his head in a map/ kid on a raging Ducati/ cab driving is how I rock a party
                                           (Mars 2005: 144).

Cabdriving may be gamelike, but it isn’t all fun and games. I titled my 2004 cabdriving auto-ethnography Playing for Hire to emphasize the dual sense of the taxicab driving experience in San Francisco. On the one hand, drivers constantly talked about their job as “playing” – “playing” the airport, “playing” the dispatch radio, “playing” the streets. On the other hand, this “play” is also “work,” and drivers need to make money—to pay the cab company for the vehicle, to pay for gas, to pay off all the numerous gatekeepers who must be tipped in the course of a shift, and finally, if any is left over, for themselves. K-ching! K-ching! is the name of the game.

When MC Mars raps about cabdriving as a video game, he doesn’t paper over the bad or candy-coat the danger. He paints an image of cabdriving as a difficult job which demands and rewards the development of individual skill, “split-second reactions” and bravado. It's a view from the streets: a less controlled, messier, and more enjoyable experience than UberDrive, or for that matter, than Uber.

Uber, and other smartphone-interfaced cab services, build on the already-gamelike aspects of cabdriving, while relying on allegorithmic design to ameliorate or obscure the job’s less gamelike, real-world difficulties. Before Uber, cabdriving was already gamelike, and it already had its interfaces: radio and computer dispatch, even smartphone apps like Taxi Magic and Cabulous. But before Uber and Lyft the allegorithmic potential of these interfaces had not been developed. UberDrive shows us how this is supposed to work: happy drivers transporting friendly customers, and making quick money. K-ching!

If any UberDrive players are suckered in enough to click “Yes” and actually join Uber, they are in for a big surprise. UberDrive is not so much a view of the actual experience of the Uber driver, as a peek into the fantasy of the Uber designer, and their vision of how the allegorithmic narrative should be playing out: a superficially cleaned up, “tout est pour le mieux” version of reality, presenting the voyeuristic perspective of the overseer, rather than the in medias res viewpoint of the driver in the street. Having played both UberDrive and the real-world game it is based on, I have to say the designers are missing a lot. Could this blindness, in fact, be an effect of that other computer game, played by Uber personnel, looking down on the city from their computer screens at Uber HQ, playing Uber’s “God View?”

"An Icarus flying above," the Uber GodView player looks down on "the devices of Daedalus in mobile and endlesss labyrinths far below" (de Certeau 1984: 92). Image by Uber.

Perhaps UberDrive’s designers could make a better game if they got out on the streets and drove a bit. Perhaps Uber’s designers could benefit from the same exercise. Perhaps the folks at Uber HQ could make better games in general if they pondered a bit more critically how their own game’s allegorithm is shaping their experience. They do know they’re playing a video game... don’t they?

Michel de Certeau, (1984) The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.

MC Mars, (2005) Don't Take Me The Long Way: 30 True, Truly Outrageous Cab Stories. San Francisco: Off D Edge Press.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Why "Taxicab Subjects"

Mosaic of a Roman cisium in the Terme dei Cisiarii, Ostia. Creative Commons photo by Sebastiá Giralt.

There are some subjects which may be written about even in a cisium.

Cisia were the ancient Roman analogue to the modern taxicab: mule-drawn carts, hired from stands at the city gates, which provided transportation in the Roman suburbs (carriages were banned from the narrow, congested streets of the city center). Seneca wrote these words late in life, a retired statesman living in his villa on the outskirts of Rome. In a letter “On Business as the Enemy of Philosophy,” he detailed the mundane, everyday responsibilities and tasks which prevented him from enjoying the peace and seclusion necessary for the profound philosophical contemplation and writing with which he would rather have been occupied. Fortunately for the harried Seneca, some subjects (possibly this very letter) are simple or direct enough to be written about, even while being jostled along, from one appointment to another, in the back of a cab.

With “taxicab subjects” I want to build upon Seneca’s insight into the link between writing and place. Some subjects are fit for spaces of quiet contemplation; others are suited for cabs, on the move. What are these “subjects” fit for the taxicab? Three kinds spring to mind:

1. The history and development of urban hired vehicles. Despite the fascinating diversity of hired vehicles which have appeared at one time or another in urban history—waterborne gondolas and shikaras, litters and sedan chairs, rickshaws, horse-drawn and motorized cabs, pedicabs and motorcycle cabs—there is nothing inevitable about the emergence of vehicular traffic in cities. For most of urban history, such a mode of travel was rare or unknown. Until very recently, cities were built for pedestrian traffic primarily or exclusively.

2. Urban form and experience as these are impacted by travel in taxicabs and similar vehicles. Our cities today, of course, have been built around the automobile, or altered to acommodate its needs. Hired automobiles (taxicabs, jitneys, and motor liveries) played a crucial role at the outset of the automotive era, in habituating the riding public to the new, motorized experience. If the technology of “self-driving” cars is successfully developed, it is a fair bet that cities will once again be redesigned around that technology. Already, driverless taxis are being envisaged as an entry model to accustom the riding public of the future to the idea of self-driving vehicles.

3. Drivers and passengers. It is the writing, experiencing, and interacting taxicab subjects, in that other sense of the word (the subject as locus of subjectivity) which I am most interested in. In the dual sense (to paraphrase Althusser and Foucault): subject as the seat of awareness and origin of initiative, and subject as one who is subjected, controlled, or directed. Subjects, constrained and empowered as participants in the taxicab assemblage (composed of vehicles, persons, stories, cities, technologies, etc.).

The idea that a cisium driver (cisiarius) might also write would probably not have occured to Seneca. Today, writing on “taxicab subjects” encompasses not only the back seat, and not only the front seat, but any writing in response to the varied subjects that pass through the cab, or that cabs pass through, and so are fit for cab writing. Who writes in the cab? What subjects does the cab, in its movement, inscribe? Encompassed in the practice of “in cisio scribere” are the harried office worker, completing letters or emails on the way to work, the cabdriving memoirist (in San Francisco alone, drivers have produced more than 11 book-length cabdriving memoirs over the last several decades), the passenger who writes about the experience of the ride (check out the eclectic backseat twitter comments collected by @myuberdriverbot), and the ethnographer writing down the words of the driver.

My own research has focused on the changing relations between drivers and passengers, particularly as these are revealed in two historic conjunctures: the switch from horse-drawn to motorized cabs a century ago, and the present moment, in which the fascination with “driverless” vehicles reveals a great deal about contemporary sensibilities, whether or not the technology is ever succesfully rolled out. As they move through the city, cabs of any era have moved through a changing web of images and imagination; evolving ideologies of class, gender, race, labor, and technology; and shifting anxieties and celebrations of the kind of urban mobility which taxicabs, and similar vehicles, provide, and the varying subjects they provide it to.