The Ghost of Harry Chapin Haunts UberCab Like, Well, a Harry Chapin Song About Taxis in "Frisco"


You remember San Francisco, the Rice-a-Roni town with the Beatniks and Hippies and Harvey Milks waiting to be born? The powers that be have just gone Dan White on an interesting startup that is supposed to be exactly the kind of hip, cool Web 2.23 company that can only be found in the Bay Area:

Ubercab's mobile apps let users request a car service to pick them up wherever they are right now, and let users pay for that car service with their phones. The startup takes a cut of the money made by drivers to generate revenue….

The incumbent taxi industry's concerns about Ubercab include the following:

Ubercab operates much like a cab company but does not have a taxi license.
Its cars don't have insurance equivalent to taxis' insurance.
Ubercab may threaten taxi dispatchers' way of earning a living.
Limos in U.S. cities usually have to prebook an hour in advance, by law, while only licensed taxis can pick someone up right away but Ubercab picks people up right away (again without a taxi license).

Well, you can guess how this one's gonna end:

UberCab Inc. has been issued a cease and desist order from the SF Metro Transit Authority & the Public Utilities Commission of California. While we are looking into the issues raised, we believe that the service we offer is in compliance with the cited regulations.

UberCab is a first to market, cutting edge transportation technology and it must be recognized that the regulations from both city and state regulatory bodies have not been written with these innovations in mind. As such, we are happy to help educate the regulatory bodies on this new generation of technology and work closely with both agencies to ensure compliance and keep our service available for our truly Uber users and their drivers.

Read more here.

Hat tip: Scott Banister, who is an investor in Ubercab.

And now on to the main event, Bill Shatner tearing up "Taxi," a song about Frisco cabs—and so much more. Where were the bureaucrats to come down on this tune?

NEXT: Expanding Medicaid: Nope, Still Not a Good Idea

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  1. Am I the only one who can’t stand the music of Harry Chapin?

    1. Maybe.
      I saw him live when I was a glam/punk/metal loving 15 y/o and thought it was a great show. I generally hate folk music too.

    2. I dunno, but he’s got me pretty paranoid about not spending enough time playing with my son.

      1. Huh, wikipedia says that Chapin’s wife wrote the lyrics to that particular masterpiece of guilt inducement.

        1. But who wrote the Wiki piece?

      2. I spent the better part of 30 years thinking that song was by Jim Croce.

        1. Nah, if Croce had written it, there’d be at least a smidgen of humor. Chapin:Croce::Donovan:Dylan.

  2. Considering how much a taxi license costs, of course the people who have actually bought into the system are going to do everything in their power to block someone who hasn’t bought in.

    Maybe Ubercab can beat them, though. That would be excellent.

    1. Yeah. I have a lot of concerns about these kind of licensing requirements: they’re a breeding ground for regulatory capture, for overreaching bureaucracy, and are generally one of the worst parts of government that doesn’t actually involve killing or incarcerating people.

      But obviously, the taxi companies aren’t going to be cool with a competitor who doesn’t have to pay the same governmental fees that they do. And… taxis aren’t like hairdressers. They really are operating on public roadways and operating machines that have the potential to kill people. I’m not convinced that regulating taxi companies is necessary, and I’m sure that whatever regulations exist tend towards the overreaching and ridiculous, but this is someplace where there is at least a little legitimate public interest.

      1. And… taxis aren’t like hairdressers. They really are operating on public roadways and operating machines that have the potential to kill people.


        cough up the decoder ring

      2. Cabs don’t kill people. Cab drivers who are high kill people.

        1. Do you have any idea what you can catch from a hair dresser?

          Hot dog carts often use the public sidewalks and they have scalding water, choking hazards,processed meat and God only knows what other hazards.

          this is someplace where there is at least a little legitimate public interest.

          Careful, that slope is slippery.

      3. Michael, I find your ideas not only offensive, but also dangerous. What if my kids logged online and read this half-baked opinion of yours? I’m calling the FCC. I don’t believe you have a permit to spout off like this. While I respect your right to free speech, this is someplace where there is at leas a little legitimate public interest.

        1. Don’t worry, I already called ICE on him.

      4. So, driving is like sex then. It is okay to do for free, but if you charge for it then you are endangering society.

      5. And… taxis aren’t like hairdressers. They really are operating on public roadways and operating machines that have the potential to kill people.

        Michael… have you ever actually taken a cab? It’s not like the taxi companies are subjecting these guys to a rigorous screening process in order to ensure that only the most qualified drivers are on the road. The “public interest” is just bull.

      6. “They really are operating on public roadways and operating machines that have the potential to kill people.”

        I thought that was why we had driver’s licenses. You know, the kind you can get when you’re a teenager for about $50 for five years?

        1. Yup. They even give them to old Asian ladies. The government doesn’t really care about safety. It’s all about the money.

        2. NO! This is different! Taxi licenses have to be scarce and limited and cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.

          For your safety. Really.

  3. No surprise to anyone who has suffered the indignities of SF cabs or the abysmal, lethargic, and filthy public transport system. Any competition whatsoever would put them at an instant disadvantage.

    Just think of all those cushy union jobs at risk. Oh, the humanity.

  4. Hey taxi protectionists! Where the fuck were you 100 years ago?

    1. Putting your mangy, read for the damned glue factory luddite ass out of business! Which is exactly the same reason UberCab uber alles!

  5. While taxi licensing regimes have degenerated into rent-seeking schemes, there is a legitimate govt interest in requiring taxi licensing, since you don’t want to have out-of-towners (or even in-towners) getting into strangers’ cars with little or no oversight. The fees should be much lower and licensing should be open to anyone who passes a background check and gives copious information about their vehicle to the authorities, however, which is where the real-life taxi licensing regimes fail.

    1. Fail. Having a hack driver come in and do some paperwork and pay a fee does not public safety guarantee. Registration for the purposes of biz taxation, and possibly proof of sufficient business insurance should be the only requirements. Some might argue for an equipment safety inspection, but beyond that, get the hell outta the way and let them DeNiro all over the place and let the market pick the winners and losers.

      1. Wind Rider|10.25.10 @ 8:46PM|#
        “Some might argue for an equipment safety inspection,…”

        If you’ve ridden in enough SF cabs, you’ll know that whatever ‘safety inspection’ is required, it must have been done, oh, three or four years ago.

        1. Haven’t been there in 30 years, and hoofed it mostly. I’d think Lombard Street + bad equipment would be fairly self critiquing, but sometimes you have to throw the hand wringers a bone to reduce the noise level, if nothing else.

          1. What’s happening is a sort of rear-guard action by the medallion-holders (who probably aren’t driving).
            By a loophole, Limos are sorta allowed to provide the same services, except (cough, snort), you can’t “call” them (they show up by, oh, mental telepathy, I guess, cough, snort)
            The Limos tend to be in a lot better shape than the cabs and you can cut a price with the driver before you get in.

            1. In MA we used to get around that bullshit by calling a quasi-taxi service a livery service, which is a less stringently regulated category. I say used to, because the state now requires special livery plates, which probably means more craptacular state imposed fees, licensing rules, and taxes. I’ve been out of the taxi business for over a decade, though, so I don’t know the details.

              It was my years of cab driving/ownership in the Boston area that made me a truly committed libertarian. There is no business I know of that compares to big city taxi ownership when it comes to government sanctioned protectionist, monopoly-encouraging license and regulation schemes. It is the antithesis of a free market model, stifling innovation and offering zero incentive to compete to offer the best service. I’m just saying.

            2. Just as a hint to travelers, the concierge at your favorite hotel in SF can perform the required mental telepathy. With no “call”; the Limo just sort of appears.

              1. We routinely use limo services for business travel. At our Florida office it is a $70 cab ride to the airport, $40-50 by limo. Plus you get to ride in a nice Lincoln or Cadillac. They must have similar rules about timing, but we always know in advance when and where we need a car, so there’s no impact to us by that restriction.

      2. Which, upon reading the link supplied by The Jacket, seems to be pretty straightforward, given that there’s a built in instant feedback mechanism with the system. Thus making the win/lose picking fairly simple. What seems to be missing is a full up competitive aspect – i.e. multiple cars bidding on your ride, allowing you to pick either the cheaper fare, or the better rated service. That would rock.

    2. Tulpa|10.25.10 @ 8:39PM|#
      “While taxi licensing regimes have degenerated into rent-seeking schemes, there is a legitimate govt interest in requiring taxi licensing, since you don’t want to have out-of-towners (or even in-towners) getting into strangers’ cars with little or no oversight.”

      What sort of “oversight” do we have now that would be removed by a market arrangement?

      1. In the event of dead tourists popping up in a ravine, the cab driver who picked them up at the airport and never delivered them to their hotel can be tracked down.

        I know you’d prefer a market-based “rape-murder free seal” but I’m not so sure.

        1. The electronic trail from the UberCab transaction is much better than a mangled document stored in a file cabinet in Frisco City Hall. Bet.

        2. What if the “cab driver” wasn’t properly licensed, or for that matter working for a cab company?

  6. “Its cars don’t have insurance equivalent to taxis’ insurance.”

    That seems like a legitimate gripe of the taxi companies. I don’t know much about the insurance they have to carry, but assuming they are mandated by law to carry some sort of insurance to protect the passenger (over and above a regular liability insurance which every driver must carry) then I have no problem with the Uber cabs being made to carry the same level of insurance.

    The rest of the excuses suck.

    1. I agree that this is the only semi-legit excuse. I spoke with my car insurance guy and he said the reason that car insurance is so expensive in Brooklyn is partly because a lot of people get regular car insurance for their gypsy cabs. Problem is that the insurance company has to pay for injuries to all the passengers, which they don’t usually calculate in the actuarial tables. The reason it’s only semi-legit is because, I assume, you are required to have a medallion to get cab insurance.

    2. The drivers are independent and carry their own town car insurance. That’s bogus. They drive clients every day and use Uber’s service to find new clients. That’s all this service is. Drivers are not random people. They are licensed.

  7. Cops imprison dog.
    Owner springs dog from doggy jail.
    Owner goes to jail with lawn mower and bolt cutters.
    Cops kill dog while owner is in jail and can’t make bail because they have a kill after three days policy.…..2035.story

    1. Uhm, fucked up story to be sure, but the guy sounds like a bit of a nutjob. Considering it’s Oklahoma, however, he’s about the median. . .

  8. I agree that Danny White wasn’t the best quarterback in Cowboy history, or even as good as Tony Romo for that matter. But what does he have to do with San Francisco?

  9. If there is a legitimate public safety interest served by requiring taxi drivers to be licensed, that’s one thing. But, why should the number of licenses be limited? Why not allow anyone who can meet the requirements to be licensed, and let supply and demand dictate the number of taxis on the road?

    Ah, screw it. I know the answer to this, and so does everyone else here. I’m preaching to the choir.

    1. Exactly. We don’t limit the number of commercial delivery vehicles, and yet they don’t clog the streets. A clever tactic would be to push this as a “green startup” that reduces the need for private cars, like Zipcar, and force an end to medallion limits.

  10. Do you guys in other cities have abundant jitney drivers?

    Here in p-burgh there are tons. If you find a guy that is a reliable driver usually you can call him and he’ll be there pretty quickly. Cheaper than a yellow cab as well.

    A sanctioned taxi can take up to two hours on weekend nights here. (no hailing, you must call, and wait, and wait, and wait…)

    1. Here in Honolulu they will lock you up in a cage if you drive a jitney. Or maybe just fine the whiz out of you. No competing with the monopoly government bus service with unionized drivers allowed.

    2. SF used to have them. Muscled out by Jerry Brown’s public service unions and the politicos who serve them.

    3. Why would anyone want to ride a jitney when we have such a marvelous bus system? Why, the other day I was on a fine Port Authority bus where you could barely smell the dried urine in the seat you were sitting in. They’re improving.

      1. When Dante had his visions of Hades a PAT bus ride was the nth circle of hell. The things that he saw were too vicious and horrible to put on paper, so he decided to leave that part out as a surprise to the worst of humanity’s newly dead.

  11. Pretty good post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I have really enjoyed reading your blog posts.

    1. Is it unlibertarian to want “Report spam” links on H&R?

      1. Yes. Anarchy is good. Repeat.

  12. Here’s how it works in Minneapolis:

    1) Limit the number of taxi licenses
    2) The limited number of licenses are used by somali drivers who won’t carry passengers with liquor because of some iffy prohibition in the koran
    3) Set up multiple commissions to try to figure out how to rectify the situation.

    Of course none of the commissions come out with a suggestion to just let anybody become a taxi driver.

  13. Harry Chapin’s Chellist on the song Taxi as well as several other albums, played at my wedding. We used to work together and became friends. My mom had us over for dinner and about every 20 minutes or so, he’d go outside and snort a mess of coke. My mom thought he was a very nice young man. And she was right.

  14. we are happy to help educate the regulatory bodies on this new generation of technology and work closely with both agencies to ensure compliance and keep our service available

    Translation: we hope to find a way to get regulators to protect our continued well-being just like they’ve done for traditional taxis.

  15. You know what sucks about that one is that 2-3 years down the road, Google will come swooping in and do the exact same thing. Or nearly exact same thing.

  16. Zealous regulation of taxicabs in Washington DC has resulted in a fleet of cabs in only slightly worse condition than those in Tijuana, with drivers who are only slightly more unscrupulous and speak only slightly less English than their Tijuana counterparts. Government at work!

  17. Louboutin, who was simply enthralled by sketching stiletto high heel sandals, devoted his late teenage life entirely to the present obsession.

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