Saturday, April 14, 2018

Cab-Jacking In Seattle & We Can Now Pickup At SafeCo Field? & Taxi Computer Problems

The rarest of events happened late Wednesday night when my friend Ted was both robbed and made to leave his cab, with the two assailants driving away in his taxi.  The short version of the story is that a man approached the cab in a darkened place beneath the Alaskan Viaduct (State Route 99) with a rifle wrapped in a blanket, forcing Ted to stop.  After robbing him, the man and his female companion drove off.  Making this bad story worse was the response of the Seattle police, refusing to do an immediate search because Ted didn't know the license plate number but given the cab was, one, a big Yellow Ford Crown Victoria, and two, the taxi's number 516 clearly posted on the sides and rear, it should have been somewhat easy to spot but no, SPD has their procedure and there would be no deviation from established policies, of course allowing the couple to get away.

One surprising part of the story is that the criminals knew enough to turn off the cab's computer, meaning dispatch lost the ability to track it.  Twice the car was spotted by Yellow cabbies but in one case my friend James hit a big pothole which unfortunately deflated two tires because if anyone could have stayed behind the fools it would be James.

Regardless of anything, Ted thankfully was not hurt and the cab was found the next day and is now currently sitting in a SPD parking lot, scheduled to be released sometime Monday or Tuesday.  This is the first time in my 30 Seattle taxi years I've heard of this happening, meaning that while Seattle cab driving will drive you crazy your chance of being murdered is very small unlike in cities like Chicago and New York.  But given that it happened to someone with more taxi miles and years than me also says something, suggesting that Seattle is changing for the worst, not the better.

The Seattle Police Department Likes Uber?

Damn was I surprised when picking up at last night's Seattle Mariner's game at SafeCo field given the SPD's indifferent to me and ALL THOSE UBER & Lyft CARS blocking traffic around the stadium.  The usual story is the past has been harassment from Seattle's finest but last night they didn't say a word to anyone as I picked up three times, my last passenger taking me to Bellevue and $42.60.

Clearly SPD has been told to lay off the Ubers and consequently, at least for the taxi moment, we cabbies too are also provided a free pass.  Why I am so pleased that if I see Uber's founder walking down the street I might even kiss him.  As yes, instant love or maybe not, the chance of infection too great even for a toxic ridden cabbie to take!

When You Can't Authorize your Credit Card 

A major drawback of taxi dispatch computers is when they crash you are left without any option except to wait it out.  Last night we were all presented with a unique scenario when it wasn't at all apparent the system was down when we did the commonplace, authorize a credit card payment, me and everyone else getting the message, "Buffeted Transaction," meaning the computer authorization was in an "intermediate stage" which until last night resulted in quick completed authorizations.  Talking to friends and colleagues it seems all of us all didn't understand what was happening, that the transactions were faulty, endangering our ultimate payment.

Unfortunately this might all turn into a huge argument with Puget Sound Dispatch if it turns out that hundreds of credit card authorizations failed to process.  Too often in my many years all responsibility is always put on the cabbie even though it isn't our fault, having done nothing but pay our fees and trust the associations to treat us fairly.  Our weekly $180.00 must come with some guarantees other than heartbreak.  When the computer goes down, how is it our responsibility?  I would like to know.









Monday, April 9, 2018

An Open Letter To The Current City of Seattle City Council President, Bruce Harrell, April 9th, 2018

Dear City Council President Harrell,

With great interest I have been following the city council's proposals and deliberations concerning the well being of Seattle's Uber and Lyft operators, the council supporting efforts to not only unionize but also to increase the Uber minimum rate from $1.35 to $2.40.  Clearly there has been much discourse as to why they are not making enough money to survive, yet I find it interesting that  you and your fellow council member are searching for solutions for something created solely by your own actions, voting, as I am sure you remember, to toss out the city council bill capping all ride-share companies at 250 vehicles each.  The real reason ride-share drivers can't make a living is due to there being 57,000 thousand of them competing in the very small market that is Seattle.  Yes, Uber might be immoral but that isn't why their market is saturated.  Again, the core reason all this is occurring is because the city council decided to open the ride share industry to unfettered expansion, minus any real enforceable regulation and oversight. 

Surely you remember, because I certainly do, as I was sitting directly in front of you as you agreed with Sally Bagshaw that the council's excellent work of 1 1/2 years (quoting then Council President Sally Clark) deserved to be rescinded, for what reason I was never clear upon.  The vote was 8 to 1, with only Mike O'Brien seeking a delay.  With that motion, you and the city council, along with Mayor Ed Murray openly embraced Uber, embarking on a relationship you now say is fraught with disparities, challenging your corporate spouse, saying this isn't what we expected when we in the city council said "I do!" kissing the technological monster firmly on the lips, vowing forever to be true.

My question to you from the local taxi industry as a whole is, why did the city council do this, and why are you now contradicting yourselves minus the obvious that all of you, save Mr. O'Brien, were completely wrong to capitulate, allowing Uber and Mayor Murray to rule the day?  It is something I've puzzled over for years, still not understanding the City's incentive promoting Uber over the nearly 100 year old local taxi industry, a quick bureaucratic romance now requiring some annulment.  What, I ask, is exactly going on?

And this isn't the first time I've asked this question, from the very beginning suspicious because the details as to why and how have remained hidden from public view, to the point that I contacted Danny Westneat  amongst others to see if they were interested in prying open the locked door.  Having gotten no takers, it appears its solely left to me to question the city council's and Ed Murray's ultimate motivations concerning their business dealings with Uber.

At this point, it appears confusion reigns, with your council throwing anything and everything at the administrative wall, seeing if it sticks, including a proposal to lower current taxi rates to $2.40 per mile.  Thanks but no thanks, as again, given that you folks started all this, why do we cabbies have to take on your burden?  Collectively we are not pleased to be tied to your whipping post.  What did we do to deserve this?  Just what is our crime?  What are our sins requiring divine governmental penance?

Sincerely,

Joseph (Joe ) Blondo

former chair, The Seattle & King County Taxi Advisory Commission

former president,  The Alliance of Taxi Associations







Saturday, March 31, 2018

Greetings From Quincy, Washington---Nature's Splendor Versus Urban Clamor & A Poem

The past couple of weeks I have been traveling through the American West, making stops at Orr Hot Springs, Colusa National Wildlife Refuge, Death Valley National Park, Virgin Valley Warm Springs in northern Nevada, the Chewaucan River outside of Paisley, Oregon, Summer Lake Hot Springs, also near Paisley, and other wildlife refuges and national forest lands in California, Nevada and Oregon.  Currently I am camping in perhaps my favorite place upon our planet, the Quincy Game Range (or Quincy Lakes), which is managed by the Washington State Department of Fish & Wildlife. The past few days I have been walking the southern part of the range, discovering new trails and lakes and ponds.  At all times of day and night I am serenaded by bird songs and the yipping of coyotes.  It is a good place.  Excuse the few rattlesnakes you might encounter because they too have the right to enjoy the countryside.  And besides, it's their home, and you are the visitor.

I mention all this because nature, the natural world is the antithesis to the workplace of the urban cabbie.  And I ask, is it truly worth it, putting up with the stupidity that is modern urban existence---honking horns, glowering cops, choking exhaust, along with the pressure to make more and more money just to have a place to sleep.  If this is reasonable then insanity has become the cultural norm, an escalating malady engulfing everyone, promoting insult and incivility and sheer recklessness where lucidity is shoved into the densest shadows.

Again, is it all worth it, toiling 12 plus hours a day, to what end, for what purpose?  The past few months, while I have been soaking in Iceland's geothermal waters, eating great Parisian cooking and now walking in the now flowering eastern Washington desert, Seattle taxi buddies have been working away day after day minus any relief.  James says he hasn't had a vacation in five years.  Ted sleeps in his cab.  Emanuel had his cab's window smashed and the taxi computer stolen.  Long called and left a message, asking who do I use when I need a tow, his Prius broken down on the side of the road.  No cabbie I know is having any fun and soon, beginning Sunday, I too will once again be amongst their ranks.  Is any of this sensible?

Maybe the best response is, how could it be?  As I said last week, even when the money is flowing, cab driving in a royal pain-in-the-butt!  That point underlined and exemplified by the recent complaint I received, my only crime empathy, treating someone who obviously isn't accustomed to it, as an equal.  When you do your best and are still punished, then you know what cab driving is all about, and it isn't good, no, not at all.

While all this is true, you might say, what then is the alternative to being a wage slave in a noisy city?  The short term answer probably is what was being preached back in those revolutionary 1960s:
simplify your life by turning back to the land, grow your own food and breathe the good country air.  But of course even if you did that, at least saving yourself, it is hard to ignore the billions left behind in every American and worldwide city, meaning you remain connected even when you not directly in the line-of-fire.

So is there anything all of us can do in the present while simultaneously tied to society's navel?  First, beyond any doubt, both recognize and express that what we all accept as normal is unacceptable.  And secondly, begin taking as much time as you can to have fun despite the hell you are in the midst of.  Do that and begin thinking of what else can I do since the life I am living is unacceptable.  The strongest stance you can take is to understand that the clangor and the pounding you are taking is completely and forever unacceptable. Make a plan.

And as quickly as you can, escape!

Poem

                                                       Walking to Something


                                        After two earlier tries I decided to give myself

                                                              more time

                              setting off early and kept walking up and down the flowered trails

                                       three species of purple and four yellow talking to me

                                                  along with accompanying bird song

                                        past small lakes and ponds and then new to me

                                   a tangle of weathered planks speaking local memory

                                                and finally the expected cliffs

                                                        and the broad Columbia

                                                 glad to have reached something

                                                               sitting there

                                        watching five  agitated crows caw and murmur

                                                over and round a nearby cliff side.






















Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Inherent Loneliness Of Cab Driving---NYC Yellow Cab Owner Hangs Himself

This past week a veteran New York City medallion owner and driver, Nicanor Ochisol, was found hanging from a rafter in his garage in Queens, having killed himself in a fit of suicidal despair.  Upset with declining business and a medallion once worth one million dollars but now down to $180,000, Ochisol had been telling friends for weeks that he might kill himself, afraid that he would lose his house because he and his wife, who also drove the cab, had their home mortgage financially tied to the medallion's valuation, which as noted, had lost over 80 percent of its resell potential.  And it wasn't like it was Ochisol's imagination that business was bad, statistically, daily NYC fares  have plummeted from a daily 2014 high of 470,000 to the new low of 175,000-250,000 fares available to 13, 587 Yellow Cabs.  If you divide 200,000 fares by just over 13,000 cabs you get a figure of about 14 fares per cab which equals starvation wages for any American cabbie.

Making it worse, declining business meant that his plan to finance his retirement by leasing the medallion for $3000. monthly was no longer feasible, knowing at most he would fetch $1400. instead, again taking another unacceptable loss.  That he felt death was his only option says much concerning the average taxi mind because nonstop misery is our persistent reality due to the daily hell the urban cabbie knows all too well.  Even when money is rolling in, traffic and deranged passengers and long hours plus indigestion and fatigue is wearing, all adding to an unpleasantness penetrating deeply to the soul, your entire being a primal screen piercing all existence.

When the money is good, the pain is bearable but when it isn't, everything becomes stupid and you end up telling yourself you are an idiot for wasting your breath for little to nothing in return.  And it is hard to argue the point as you wait one, two, three hours for the next fare.  Suddenly you are crazy and life as you once knew it is now worthless.

And this was Ochisol's prevalent reality, trapped by overwhelming debt and diminishing business, his deep depression telling him there was no escape save death because the cab driver faces his/her life minus any external support, the cabbie completely and utterly on their own.  If that cabbie idling next to you looks crazy, this is in part the reason why.

This inherent independence and isolation holds advantages but those quickly vanish when your revenue stream is gone, leaving you upon your own island surrounded by an angry financial sea.  Just like the NYC cabbies, we in Seattle also question whether we can survive the Uber/Lyft onslaught.  Burdened by regulation and unfair competition we don't understand how we can survive.  When we tell the City of Seattle and King County licensing administrators none of this no longer makes sense, they respond by adding 55 medallions we don't need or can support.  This adds to our inescapable loneliness, to the feeling that no one understands or cares.  Maybe if one of our number commits suicide it might get their attention but I am not looking for any volunteers because I doubt even that would alter an equation that doesn't add up, allowing Uber and Lyft to continually flood a finite passenger market.  As in NYC, our number of daily fares are down.  Like cab owners in NYC and elsewhere, we all wonder how long this process can continue.

And since Seattle has over 57,000 Uber and Lyft drivers, joining their swelled ranks is certainly not the answer.  The only answer that makes sense is to reduce the number of operators.  And how do you do that?   Place a moratorium of at least one year upon all new for-hire licensees.  Let natural attrition govern the market.  After one year, do a study determining just how much local independent operators are making.  If folks are still working to make little to nothing then extend the moratorium for another year and conduct yet another determinative study.

By doing this, the City of Seattle and King County will help resolve a problem of their making because they are the ones who created this mess and no one else.  Again, does anyone in their bureaucratic towers know the meaning of accountability?  I am sure a quick glance at their Merriam- Webster will assist in the answer.  It can't be that hard, can it?






Monday, March 19, 2018

Will Uber Survive?

According to a Forbes Magazine article dated December 14th, 2017, two amazing facts screamed out at me, underlining what I have been both thinking and saying: despite all their investment money, something in the range of 70 billion dollars, Uber may not survive.  Forbes tells us that in its seven year history, it has yet to show all those investors one penny of profit.  And in 2017, to the point that the article was written, Uber had already lost 3.2 billion dollars.  And further updating the misery, on February 14th 2018, CNBC said Uber's 2017 losses increased by 61 percent, resulting in a total loss 2017 loss of 4.5 billion.  The question obviously is, how is this sustainable, and like a comatose patient, when will the plug be pulled?

While there have been some investor grumbling, like Benchmark Capital's August 2017 fraud lawsuit against Uber and its founder, Travis Kalanick, there still appears to be some optimism left evidenced by the December 2017 move by Softbank (a Japanese multinational conglomerate) to take a 14% stake in Uber, thus making Kalanick an instant billionaire.  Again my question is, what will it ultimately take for the majority of Uber investors to suddenly realize that what they invested their money in is just a more transparent Ponzi scheme, where the illusion of profit exists solely to own their financial miscalculations because, while Uber is bringing in money, will it ever be enough to be  profitable?

Hopefully I don't have to remind anyone about the recent Bernie Madoff and his  defrauding of everyone within his investor circle?  While Madoff clearly was a compete liar, is Uber any more truthful by insisting that billions of small operator fares annually will not only pay back all inventor capital but also provide a tidy profit?  Is this "Alice in Wonderland" all over again?  Maybe.

Glancing online at various reports, it seems that Uber, at least recently, 2017 greater losses not withstanding, has been losing 2 billion dollars annually.  Adding it all up, including 2017, and we see a potential total loss of 16.5 billion dollars.  Subtract 16.5 from 70 billion and you get a total of 53.5 and lot of investor money down the financial drain.  While income does offset some of the loss, it remains a sorry situation for those interested in faster and more guaranteed gains.

Another puzzling factor is Uber's overhead and just what is bleeding them financially?  Looking it up, I find costs for lobbying, lawyers, driver acquisition and on-boarding, which I assume means app costs.  How this all adds up to 2 billion in losses yearly I don't understand which bring me back to my Ponzi scheme.  Maybe its true that you just can't make a profit constantly undercutting your competitors, and getting back to hypotheticals, the ability to make this a sustainable economic model is purely a pipe dream and nothing else.

One article I saw said that Uber felt its true and ultimate profitability will come from self-driving cars.  If that is true then Uber might want to rethink that notion because yesterday in Tempe, Arizona one of their autonomous vehicle struck and killed a pedestrian.  And this occurred even though it had a driver on board.

After reading 3 different articles about the accident,  a fourth one I discovered in the NY Times related that the State of Arizona had told all those makers of autonomous cars that they will remain totally free from state regulations, an assurance leading to a flood of autonomous road trials.  That fact alone should give anyone crossing a street in Phoenix or Tucson or Tempe pause because the state is now allowing completely driverless cars to be used in the developmental process thus transforming the average Arizona citizen into an experimental laboratory rat.

This is good governance?  Perhaps not but it shows the kind of deference Uber is provided.  Maybe soon everyone one will stop kissing innocent little Uber on the forehead and instead issue a good smack to the buttock.  Remember that age old adage, "spare the rod and spoil the child?"  It certainly looks like it might apply to the petulant Uber, puckering its lips and sticking out a nasty tongue.

And if this is what its like in Uber's childhood, how is it going to act during its adolescent years?  Run for the "financial" hills, everybody!

Postscript March 21st, 2018 Wednesday

Reading the March 20th LA Times article online (written by Russ Mitchell)  concerning the Tempe, AZ death of Elaine Herzberg caused by Uber's robot-car, I found the late 2016 quote by Arizona  Governor Doug Ducey to be telling:

"Arizona welcomes Uber self-driving cars with open arms and wide open roads. While California puts the brakes on innovation and change with more bureaucracy and more regulation, Arizona is paving the way for new technology and new businesses."

"Monday, the governor's office expressed condolences for Herzberg's family and said "public safety is our top priority"

For the record, the reason why the State of CA stopped Uber from testing was due to, one, Uber never having applied for the proper permits and  two, that one of their driverless cars was involved in a rollover accident.

I for one would not invest into Uber.  Might be a bad idea.















Monday, March 12, 2018

5000 Miles & All He Was Wearing & I Get A Complaint

Sometimes I forget just how miles I drive in a given year but since I put on new tires once back from Europe, I now know minus all doubt that in one solitary month I drove 5000 plus miles which says to me everything I don't want to know about cab driving.   Too many times I have said to anyone within hearing distance that everything involved with  taxi is fatigued---the driver, the car, the dispatch, you name it---every moving part including the cabbie subjected to unusual wear and tear grinding our entire operation down to bare fiber and taxi bone, with the ultimate cost both physical and financial, killing the soul and destroying the bank account. No fun, no fun I keep repeating, and until I finally remove myself from this insane business I must again say, this isn't any fun!

Black Shorts, Black T-Shirt & Bedroom Slippers

My taxi credo is "I'll stop for anybody!" and that was certainly the case last week driving northbound downtown on 4th Avenue near James Street when I saw a middle-aged man waving dressed like it was August and not the first week in wintery March.  His story, and certainly a sad one, was that he had just been released uncharged from the King County jail after being held for two days.  And the reason for his temporary incarceration?

Sunday night, while both he and the wife were hitting the bottle, they began arguing over how their tax refund was spent, given his understanding of what they had agreed to was different from what actually occurred.  Off he went to bed only to be awakened at two in the morning by the local police who swept him off to jail minus his clothes, telephone and wallet, they responding to the wife's "whiskey and marijuana" addled call.

Originally telling me he was heading home to Bothell, he decided to instead detour to his sister's house, given he had no real idea what fate awaited him upon his arrival home.  I agreed that was the best course, and once I had $30.00 in hand courtesy of his sister I wished him luck because it seemed that he needed it, that and perhaps a divorce lawyer.

Ridiculous 

Finally I might have learned my lesson about treating troubled or disadvantaged passengers as normal, as regular people as opposed to how both they are usually treated, and worse, how they view themselves and their life situation.  Picking the woman up at a Seattle Housing  Authority building, the same kind of housing my late mother resided for over twenty-one years, she was on her way to some kind resident input meeting sponsored by SHA.  My mistake again was responding to her as someone who, at least theoretically, was someone deemed capable in assisting with resident concerns, meaning we could have an actual lucid conversation about what SHA was doing or not.  Making a joke at the end, she somehow took it to imply that I was not an honest cabbie, prompting her to say that to whoever was at the meeting who in turn called Yellow.  Given that I thought I had already learned this years ago, I was mad at myself for not remembering an object lesson dating back to 1975 and my first psychiatric job:  that due to past damage, some folks, not feeling equal, were going to try to hurt me regardless of how I treated them.  It something I will include in my upcoming taxi correspondence course series, something I might term "the fine art of passenger relations" because it is an art, relating properly to as many different kinds of people as there are upon the planet.  As I say, I meet everybody, and once again I am reminded of that.  Am I naive?  No.  Am I dumb?  Yes, yes I am dumb.








Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Who Knew That We Have 57,000 Uber & Lyft Operators in Seattle & King County?

A local taxi lobbyist told me something I still have trouble believing---that there are over 57,000 Uber and Lyft independent contractors in Seattle and King County.  But despite my incredulity I know she is accurate, meaning I have been under estimating the total TNC driver count by 37,000.  Upon the subject of all things Uber I never have thought myself naive but guess what, never imagining this many drivers overwhelming our transportation market.  It certainly could be called many things but nonsensical is my first thought, all these operators plying a population one tenth the size of New York City.  Crazy, man, crazy!

And why do we have so many TNC (Uber & Lyft) operators?  Gullibility must be the answer, with too many buying into Uber's rhetoric that "you too can earn all this great money!" just by working a few hours in your spare time.  Unfortunately for all those who took the bait, according to a new MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) study, the majority are averaging $3.73 per hour after all overhead expenses are factored in, meaning that many drivers might actually be operating at a deficit, literally paying for the privilege to work and earn nothing whatsoever.  And even worse, one commenter said he thinks that some of the drivers "don't know!" that they aren't making anything.  Amazing and sad and stupid.

Yes very scary if the MIT study is correct, painting a scenario of something that shouldn't exist except it does, making it difficult on all of us connected to passenger carrying related businesses.  And just like talking to a "born again"Christian, how can you convince the "true Uber believer" that their God is an illusion, and their version of "financial heaven" is the stuff of mythology?  Difficult and perhaps impossible after the typical $15,000-20,000 investment is made to buy the car and now finding themselves accelerating down "dreamland's" highway, however nightmarish their drive might ultimately be.

That we went from a capped total of 500 Uber and Lyft vehicles to 57,000 says everything that can be said about local government and their decisions concerning the local taxi industry.  And yes, they are going ahead and adding 55 more taxis to our already suffering fleet.  Maybe their philosophy is "the more the merrier" but despite all initial cheering it soon will be "crying time again!" and next winter all the new owners will be cursing what was once, at least they thought, their good fortune.  Oh well, don't we all enjoy sharing a living hell?  The answer is no we don't, not at all.

A Bit of Levity

Today talking to "she who can't be named," she said that "$180.00 a week" is too much money, referring to the weekly dispatch fee all of us pay to Yellow Cab.  And of course it is and it is truly a shame that she is down in Arcata, California because there would be "hell to pay" if I took her down to the business office and set her loose upon the office staff.  I guarantee her wrath would be unforgettable, the stuff of legend, finding myself still laughing at the memory of her routing the five cowboys we encountered in Bismark, North Dakota during a 1992 cross-country journey.   That was funny, a potential dangerous scenario morphing into the comedic.