Within the past year, the North Coast taxi industry has experienced a massive wave of disruption following the arrival of ride-booking companies Lyft and Uber in Wine Country.
The statistics back it up. Uber said it had 600 Santa Rosa drivers who made more than 100,000 trips in its first year of service, while in tourist-rich Napa County, it had 1,000 drivers who made 250,000 trips.
“We have really seen incredible growth in the area,” said Uber spokeswoman Laura Zapata.
Lyft said it had hundreds of drivers in the two counties, but a spokeswoman declined to give specifics.
Local taxi companies are feeling the impact. Last fiscal year, the city of Santa Rosa collected $18,000 from taxi companies, which are required to pay a fee based on gross revenues. This fiscal year, it has received only $9,000 through 11 months, though some of the 24 companies with active franchises in Santa Rosa may have been late in paying their fees.
The numbers in this debate have significant ramifications in a battle between the brash, high-tech startups from San Francisco and the more traditional, highly regulated taxi industry, which has long been a part of this country’s fabric, from serving as grist for plots in TV shows to providing employment for recent immigrants.
The reverberations are playing out at city council meetings, in courts and in Sacramento, in parking lots where taxi drivers converge during slow periods, and at hotels and restaurants that help drive the local economy and are a key conduit to the North Bay transportation industry.
But it can truly be seen in the drivers themselves, for example, in the difference between the circumstances of Raymond Martin and John Myerson.
Martin, 63, has been a driver for Uber for the past 10 months, a perfect part-time job given he has some flexibility in his full-time job as a finance manager at Manly Honda in Santa Rosa. It allows him to pick up riders as he goes to and from his home in Windsor.
Martin said he averages about $30 to $35 an hour when he switches on a smartphone app that coordinates pick-ups for passengers in his 2013 Ford Focus. Trips can range from a few miles across town to all the way to San Francisco. But most are tourists visiting wineries or other local attractions, and they don’t want to drink and drive. The extra money goes to pay off bills. The bonus is Martin likes to drive and meet new people, which can almost be therapeutic.
“I like Uber because I meet really interesting people. I have had CEOs from companies. I have had children, like high-school kids who wanted to visit their friend who had cancer,” Martin said. “Every single customer, I would say 99.9 percent are extremely happy and thankful.”
The outlook is not as bright for Myerson, owner of First Class Taxi in Fulton and general manager of Golden Taxi Service, who has been in the local industry for four years.
Golden has a fleet of 12 cabs, but only three are in service given the competition from the startups, which can offer rides for less given that they operate with less regulation and the drivers are considered independent contractors rather than employees. Another draw is the ease of use with their smartphone apps, which also handles all payments digitally.