Last Thursday marked a significant milestone in San Antonio governance. San Antonio Mayor Ivy Taylor and City Council grappled with the relatively new issue of ridesharing in our city. While the concept has existed elsewhere in the country for years now, we began the conversation when Lyft and Uber arrived here nine months ago. It’s a relevant and critical aspect in our present society that we can all agree needs to be thoughtfully implemented moving forward. Regardless of which side of the issue you may agree with, the Council, Chief McManus, and the Public Safety Committee worked exhaustively to achieve a regulatory scheme for ridesharing companies up to this point.
Despite the passage of regulations for Transportation Network Companies (TNCs), as they are categorized legally in the new ordinance, the code is more stringent than in any other city in the United States. As a consequence, we are in a very precarious situation whereby we could potentially alienate ridesharing companies altogether, or perhaps lead the way for other cities to follow suit. Whether Uber and Lyft decide to stay in San Antonio under the circumstances will dictate where we go from here. In the former scenario, we are faced with a governmental and public policy failure of disastrous proportions, considering our lack of public transit options and rampant DUI issues that face our city. In the latter scenario, we are testing the limits of free enterprise.
As an owner of Do210, a website reaching many 21-35-year-olds, I support ridesharing, a service that enhances the lives of many of our readers. Ridesharing technology is one more innovative step toward building competition in a city that not only sorely lacks a comprehensive public transportation system, but fails to address serious DUI issues. Lack of public transit options, coupled with an effort to bring down the only source of competition to the taxi cab industry, has created a conundrum where, before now, it’s been as expensive, if not more, to take a taxi from Southtown to Stone Oak than to purchase an airline ticket to Houston or Dallas. This is not only unfortunate, but frankly, absurd. Left to its own devices, how can we expect the taxi companies to self-regulate without competition in a city that continues to endure a public transportation crisis?
I’ve used ridesharing for almost five years as an attorney, band manager, and road manager in cities including New York, Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. I’ve never encountered an issue. To the contrary, I’ve needed, at times, to travel through four cities over three days, relying heavily on rideshare options as the primary source of ground transportation for a crew of up to 10 people. The drivers and services themselves have been courteous, professional, and most importantly, punctual, in my experience. Ridesharing is affordable. Taxis are expensive. In the case of San Antonio, most citizens here cannot afford them.
From a public policy standpoint, we are faced with a two-fold predicament. We live in a city that has one of the highest per capita DUI problems in the State of Texas, and San Antonio stands out in Texas with the highest rate of alcohol-related fatalities. Will enabling rideshare solve this problem? No, but it provides one more option or incentive for the inebriated concertgoer or bar-hopper to consider while weighing the risk of driving across the 400-plus square miles of our city.
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As long as there are no other options besides one business collective whose prices at times rival intrastate airfare, we can expect more of the same (DWI fatalities, wrong-way drivers, and otherwise decent citizens who become ensnared in this escalating law enforcement and public safety crisis).
As we push forward to further attract Millennials to our dynamic city, we also must realize the burgeoning nightlife they expect, and the growing concert business that continues to develop here. People are going to go out, they’re going to eat, drink, and if they don’t have meaningful alternatives, they will drive.
When ridesharing first arrived in San Antonio, I was elated. Without remuneration, I embraced the opportunity to spread awareness for the services offered through our own marketing efforts at Do210.com. This started with the grand opening of the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. As a company, and again, without compensation, we elected to share the advertising space on the Tobin video wall with Uber. Why, you may ask? Well, between the 2,500 people inside the performance hall and theater, and more than 1,000 people on the plaza, many had been drinking. Uber offered free rides to and from the Tobin Center that evening. On the same day, District Attorney Susan Reed was in attendance and remarked about Uber on the video wall while telling me how much she loves Uber.
“Whatever it takes to curb DUIs in San Antonio, right?” she said. At the time, this seemed particularly insightful to me coming from Bexar County’s top law enforcement official. To my knowledge, there were no taxi companies offering free rides that evening.
As Graham Weston pointed out in his earlier piece on this subject, the Millennial generation wants urban living options and strongly desires better transportation options to get from point A to point B without relying on a personal vehicle. Many of these same Millennials we seek (as a city) to attract have already grown accustomed to using these rideshare features in the cities where they’ve grown up. It is and has been a big part of their everyday life. Young people want the same options they can find in other cities. By failing to provide a service that’s already been active in more than 250 cities, do we really want to set ourselves apart in this way as the city that progress forgot? Do we really want to set ourselves apart as the city in Texas with arguably the biggest DUI issue that offers no other viable public transportation options?
Perhaps the bigger discussion with regard to ridesharing is the lack of focus on the greater message our leadership sends to a very vocal minority group, rewarding small special interest opposition to the detriment of our community. Lobbyists swarm the halls and property of City Hall to deride or inveigh against rideshare and other proposed ideas. Our leadership needs to take greater note of the overwhelming support for these common sense ideas.
Remarkably, people from the cyber world composed the majority in attendance Thursday, albeit with little impact to the sitting members of The Council. In the 21st century, collectivism exists in the cyber realm more fervently than any group of people who have time to demonstrate in person. Widespread support for these ideas exists in our community, well beyond the physical lobbying tactics of one group. Leadership should remain mindful of the balance between regulation and free enterprise and know that negating competition through regulation zeroes out the benefit to the consumer public. These services must be affordable for them to be viable. They are all not one and the same. Not even the ridesharing companies themselves are the same from one to the next. For instance, Uber is a heavily capitalized company with global reach, whereas Lyft (often overshadowed by Uber) is a mere fraction of the size.
I implore the Council to work with all ridesharing companies between now and the effective date of the law itself, which could likely have the effect of nullifying one or more transportation options: alternatives that could have the potential of saving an untold number of lives on a daily basis. There is more work that needs to be accomplished between now and then, and even after. We cannot lament DUI tragedies while effectively canceling efforts to mitigate those problems. We need to embrace all attempts to curb the DUI problem.
If we lose Lyft or Uber, we have failed to address the public safety crisis of driving under the influence. Our citizens need as many options available to them as possible to prevent them from getting behind the wheel of an automobile while intoxicated. This is the true public safety concern, rather than isolated incidents in India or lawsuits in California and Portland that the taxi industry cites as reasons to dump rideshare. DUIs are an everyday problem in our city. It’s incumbent upon our leadership in the city to acknowledge this first while balancing the public safety concerns or rideshare that have had a minimal impact on society in the 250 other cities that have embraced it.
I encourage all rideshare drivers to voluntarily submit to the 10-finger background checks immediately to dispel any question about passenger safety. I see no real barrier or reason for San Antonio rideshare drivers not to go through this process right now. This seems like a reasonable policy in light of some questions that have been raised in legal proceedings in other states and questions about the actual depth of Uber’s background checks. After submitting to the 10-finger background check, there should be no question about the identity and background of the driver of a vehicle. Will this cure all public safety concerns about taxi or rideshare drivers? It’s tough to say, because taxis themselves are not immune to public safety concerns regarding their drivers. Just last week a licensed taxi driver in Ohio was arrested for sexually assaulting a passenger. In some sense, we all assume an inherent risk by getting into the vehicle of a stranger, regardless of whether they are a taxi, Lyft, or Uber driver. That’s life.
I challenge the leadership of our city to consider the lives we can save by striking the proper balance between regulation and free enterprise. In this instance, it is the benchmark by which we will not only address this issue, but many more to come. The stakes here could not be higher with the epidemic of DUIs in our city persisting on a daily basis. We cannot afford to let one or more of these companies leave our city. Let’s do our best to give all of them the opportunity to conduct business and provide jobs where none existed before.
See all rideshare coverage here.