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San Diego’s Taxi-Turned-Uber Drivers Get A New Lease On Life

The city of San Diego will take up measures this fall aimed at reforming the existing taxi industry. But cab companies are urging them to turn their gaze toward mobile rideshare companies. They insist they aren't losing customers to Uber. But they are, in fact, losing money. Fronteras reporter Megan Burks says the money is following cab drivers, who are making the jump to Uber in droves. 

Megan Burks: So we're standing here on Fairmount Avenue in City Heights. Let's see if we can call up Uber. So you just click 'Set up pick-up location' and it looks like there are two really close to us, about seven minutes away. And there's our driver right there. And he's actually texting me right now.

The text was automated, as is just about everything with Uber. The driver's photo pops up on your screen when he's on his way. You key in your credit card information to pay. There are no tips. Receipts are emailed. Leave a sweater behind? Just text the driver.

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The convenience is winning over tech-savvy millennials. And it's also winning over taxi drivers.

Somo picks me up in a black Lincoln town car that he leases from a limo company. 

Quick explainer here: Uber drivers can use their own vehicle or, like Somo, work with a luxury car service that allows drivers to pick up Uber calls. Uber handles just the app and insurance.

As a taxi driver, Somo says he paid significantly more to lease a cab than what he pays now. With the lower overhead, he now has the potential to make more money, even after Uber takes its 20 percent cut. But Somo says his biggest gain is time. 

Somo: I have four little kids which say when I go to work, 'Dad, don't go! Don't leave us! Stay with us!

Somo says he typically works Friday through Sunday. He clocks on by turning on his app, and he can do it as often or as little as he'd like. 

Somo: Nobody force you to drive limo, to work with the Uber. But if you drive a taxi, you have to drive 30 calendar month or 365 days yearly. Even if you're sick, you have to pay a lease with the taxi company.

To be clear, that's not written into taxi contracts. But cab drivers say their leases cost so much they have to work that many hours to take home even a little money. Uber came to San Diego in 2012, just as taxi drivers were beginning demand better working conditions. The city is still piecing together reform. But, meanwhile, Uber is already ushering in change.

Sarah Saez/United Taxi Workers of San Diego: I just went downtown and I asked a driver and he said, 'Uber's the best thing.' And he's a taxi driver. He said, 'Uber's one of the best things that ever happened. My lease rate went down.' 

Sarah Saez/United Taxi Workers of San Diego: So I think there are a lot of drivers in the taxi industry who are welcoming the competition, because it's the first time that permit holders in the taxi industry are actually trying to improve it, again, by lowering leases, buy treating their drivers better, because they know they can just leave and work for Uber.

And quite a few of them are leaving to work for Uber, says Anthony Palmeri, who owns the dispatch service for Yellow Cab.

Anthony Palmeri/Yellow Radio Service: I don't have a customer problem - I have enough customers to fill these cabs everyday. My owners don't have enough drivers to drive the taxicabs, so the cab sits idle.

Palmeri says about 40 of the 255 cars on his roster currently aren't in service because their owners can't find people to drive them. That mean those owners aren't seeing their usual income from monthly lease payments. 

Those leases cost more because, unlike Uber, cab companies have to pay for city permits and outfit their cars with pricey equipment. To level the playing field, Palmeri says Uber should be regulated more like cab companies.

Anthony Palmeri/Yellow Radio Service: If it looks like a duck, if it walks like a duck, if it talks like a duck, it's a duck. And treat it as a duck.

And Uber is beginning to look more and more like a duck in San Diego. Some of the drivers who couldn't afford the city permits to start their own taxi companies are buying fleets of black Uber cars to lease out like their former bosses. So while the city grinds its gears on taxi reform, former cab drivers are creating a sort of replica taxi industry where those permits aren't needed.

- Megan Burks  is a reporter at KPBS in San Diego.

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