City Council will meet Thursday to vote on proposed rules that would allow rideshare companies like Lyft and Uber to operate legally in San Antonio. But the new regulations and requirements are so onerous, say rideshare company representatives and advocates, the net result would be to chase the services out of San Antonio.
Rideshare advocates say that more than 250 cities now offer rideshare services, and only a small number of cities with strong taxi unions prohibit the services from operating entirely. Houston and Austin have approved rideshare and Dallas is expected to approve its ordinance this week. Houston’s more demanding rules, which passed earlier this year, are similar to those proposed in San Antonio. Lyft suspended operations in Houston while Uber continues to operate.
Many observers believe the new rules are really meant to exclude rideshare from San Antonio and protect a small but aggressive taxi industry that has made a visible show of force at City Hall over several months of hearings.
Both Lyft and Uber have distributed online petitions and email campaigns that ask for a “no” vote from City Council members. The outcome of the vote is unclear, but at least five council members appear to support the taxi industry.
Council will be voting on rideshare and a full agenda Thursday, its final regularly-scheduled meeting of 2014. The council will narrow down a list of 14 candidates to three during Wednesday’s B session to fill the District 1 spot left vacant by Diego Bernal in November, who resigned to run for the Texas House District 123 seat vacated by Rep. Mike Villarreal to run for mayor. The newcomer presumably will cast a vote on rideshare regulation.
Though the vote will also take place just after the Dec. 9 District 2 runoff election between incumbent Keith Toney and challenger Alan Warrick II, the results of the election won’t be certified until a special Council meeting on Dec. 16. Toney has been quite clear that, given the chance, he will vote against rideshare companies.
Rideshare advocates hope to table the issue for additional consideration in the new year.
San Antonio Police Department Chief William McManus has been the city’s most visible advocate for regulating rideshare since it first appeared in San Antonio, supporting a shutdown of the services and a crackdown on independent drivers. Then-Mayor Julián Castro expressed support for the wildly popular transportation option, and gave the services political space to operate, at least unofficially, while the matter was debated by a council committee.
Rideshare services have grown exponentially in cities in the United States and around the world, and almost everywhere, been vigorously opposed by taxi unions and the company owners who actually own the vehicles and licenses or medallions.
McManus presented updated amendments to the vehicle-for-hire ordinance, Chapter 33 of City Code, last week with mixed reactions from council members. McManus said the proposed rules were created with public safety as the top priority. Traditional taxi cab and limousine company representatives support the ordinance resulting from McManus’ adjustments to the city’s officials task force recommendation report.
McManus assured council members last week that no part of the recommendation was constructed to “punish” Lyft or Uber, assurances others are not buying.
“We are here today to try to allow the TNCs to work (in) the city, and I don’t think that compromising public safety for any (industry) is good for the city … we should not overlook them (because) the TNCs don’t want to be regulated,” McManus told Council.
The new rules would dramatically increase insurance costs and require yearly and per-driver fees, an SAPD-administered fingerprint background check, a third-party vehicle inspection, extensive driver testing, and more. Rideshare, also known as transportation network company (TNC), representatives supported the original task force recommendations, but balked at the insurance costs and demands on its often part-time drivers.
“Uber creates a marketplace where these people can use their own car to provide a ride to their neighbors when, where, and how often they want – a strong contrast to taxi, where multiple full-time drivers drive one car 24 hours/7 days a week with high mileage and significant wear and tear with the majority of the profit going to the taxicab company,” stated Uber Dallas General Manager Leandre Johns, an Uber general manager, in a letter to City Council on Sunday. “Simply put, there is virtually no comparison between taxis and TNCs that use smart apps to connect riders looking for transportation to drivers that provide transportation.”
Click here to download Johns’ letter to Mayor Ivy Taylor and City Council.
Councilmember Toney said last week that he was skeptical of the TNC’s capacity to follow any future rules since Lyft and Uber have been operating despite a cease and desist order from SAPD. The proposed rule that TNCs should “attest” to the validity of their drivers and “police themselves” gave Toney pause.
“They’ve shown that they really cannot abide by the rules,” he said.
According to Brian Chasnoff’s recent column in the Express-News, Toney’s supporters in the taxi industry have “contributed thousands of dollars to his election campaign.”
Toney strongly denied that the contributions hold any weight on his vote.
Villarreal supports rideshare and said a vote in favor of TNCs from council would signal San Antonio’s support for “innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship … when I think about what I want San Antonio to look like 50 years in the future, it’s a city on the cutting edge of technology.”
When it comes to attracting young professionals, reducing drunk driving, and providing another transportation option in the city, he said, rideshare helps all three.
“We should look at all of our regulations, and if we cannot justify them in the public interest, then we need to have the guts to strike them from the books,” Villarreal said. “We should not be in the business of creating artificial barriers to entry into any given market place. I think in this case I am very concerned that the city is moving forward with an ordinance that does not make us safer – that simply protects the status quo.
“(Traditional cab companies) have already overcome the (regulation cost) hurdle and they don’t want to lower that gate that would allow more competition,” he added.
Fellow mayoral candidate Leticia Van de Putte also supports a set of rules that is more rideshare-friendly.
“Major Texas cities and others across the country have found a way to welcome the services of transportation network companies to meet their city’s growing demands while ensuring the safety of their communities. I have complete confidence that San Antonio will rise to the same challenge,” Van de Putte stated in an emailed response.
More than 250 cities worldwide are listed on Uber’s service page, and more than 60 cities in the U.S. have Lyft. Three states (Colorado, California, and Illinois) and about a dozen cities have created local ordinances or state legislation to accommodate TNCs as they enter markets under an operate first, ask permission later-model. Dallas City Council will likely approve a set of rideshare-friendly rules Tuesday, according to local media reports.
“We need to step back and try to work this out,” said Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff Monday afternoon. “It would be a tragedy for the city to walk away (from rideshare) and say we’re a city that doesn’t want to wake up to the new world. If other cities can work it out, so can we.
“We already have (killed) the streetcar. Why kill one more (transportation option)?” he added.
Wolff said he hoped City Council would set aside making a decision on TNC regulation on Thursday.
“We need to weigh (the true benefits of these proposed rules) with the larger cost of sending a message to the world that San Antonio isn’t a modern city welcoming to entrepreneurs,” Villarreal said.
*Featured/top image: Taxi drivers and media crowd the Public Safety Committee meeting room to hear talks about how authorities will deal with “rideshare”/transportation network companies. Photo by Brandy Rae Perez.
See all rideshare coverage here.