John Bouloubasis, president of Yellow Cab San Antonio, speaks with media after the City Countil Public Safety Committee meeting May 7, 2014. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

The City of San Antonio will review its vehicle for hire ordinance to possibly accommodate ride service technologies. Until then, however, rideshare mobile application operations Lyft and Uber are in violation of the existing ordinance. Both transportation network companies have drivers that have violated the local ordinance. Ten citations have been issued in the last month.

A cease and desist order was sent to Lyft soon after its local launch in March and the San Antonio Police Department is preparing one to send to Uber now, said San Antonio Police Chief William McManus. The companies had been offering free rides, but Uber began charging regular rates for customers and Lyft now accepts “donations.” Citations for operating without a city-issued chauffeur’s license carry a fine of up to $500.

Enforcement of the ordinance will continue, McManus said, adding that the SAPD will begin to impound vehicles of offending drivers on the first offense if operations do not stop.

A lyft driver picks up a fellow "rideshare" or transportaiton network company (TNC) supporter after the City Council Public Safety Committee meeting May 7, 2014. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
A Lyft driver picks up a fellow “rideshare” or transportation network company (TNC) supporter after the City Council Public Safety Committee meeting May 7, 2014. Photo by Iris Dimmick. Credit: Iris Dimmick / Rivard Report

The City Council Public Safety Committee today initiated the formation of a “work group” comprised of representatives from a taxi cab company, limousine company, a transportation network company (TNC/ride service), and the Transportation Advisory Board (TAB) to work with City staff. The task force will examine other municipal practices and draft changes to the ordinance for presentation at the August committee meeting.

Local taxi drivers — most of whom wore bright, yellow shirts to the meeting to contrast with Lyft’s bright, pink swag — had mixed reactions to the decision to amend Chapter 33 of City Code that regulates “vehicles for hire.”

It depends on what the group comes up with, said one Yellow Cab assistant manager during the citizens to be heard session. “We’re not afraid of competition, but we expect a level playing field.”

Lyft screenshot courtesy of Iris Dimmick.
Lyft screenshot courtesy of Iris Dimmick.

Lyft and Uber connect private drivers and their vehicles to passengers via smart phone applications. A portion of the driver’s fare goes directly to the company. The ride services provide extended insurance coverage, conduct their own background checks on drivers, and carry out vehicle inspections. Representatives from both companies claim that their procedures and checks are at least as effective as the traditional, municipal process.

Taxi and limousine companies have repeatedly called foul. Lyft and Uber drivers are not required to pay fees associated with vehicle for hire operations, obtain expensive commercial insurance, commercial licenses, or go through as extensive training/verification processes required by law. There also is a cap on how many vehicles for hire can operate in San Antonio, another aspect that may come under review by the task force.

It is, in effect, less expensive for Uber and Lyft drivers to operate by circumventing the requirements of the ordinance.

District 5 City Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales expressed concern over revisiting an ordinance that has just been through a 10-year analysis and overhaul concluding in August 2013.

“I still feel like we haven’t come to any good conclusions,” she said. “I just don’t know that a working group will uncover anything that already has been … I’d be uncomfortable,” with back-tracking the work done previously to the ordinance.

During that process, however, there was no such thing as a “rideshare” app in Texas. The startups were just starting to gain traction in California. “We were not a part of that conversation … We weren’t even conceived of,” said Uber Dallas General Manager Leandre Johns after the meeting. “These regulations don’t apply (to Uber).”

Johns said Uber is looking forward to being a part of the conversation about changing the ordinance, but that Uber will continue to operate and violate the current ordinance in San Antonio. When asked if Uber would be telling their drivers about the ordinance and citations after the meeting, Johns said no.  “We haven’t received a cease and desist order yet.”

Ride service technology supporters in pink and their opposition in yellow at the City Council Public Safety Committee meeting May 7, 2014. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Ride service technology supporters in pink and their opposition in yellow at the City Council Public Safety Committee meeting May 7, 2014. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

“I don’t think there’s any question that (Lyft and Uber drivers) are in fact vehicles for hire,” said District 3 Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran, as hesitant as Gonzales about reopening the ordinance, “but it is worth the effort … it’s extremely important to welcome the opportunity to find the regulatory path.”

Joseph Okpaku, government relations manager for Lyft, spoke during the citizens to be heard session about the company’s commitment to be involved in the conversation as well.

“Laws evolve, they always do. If they didn’t, there would be no need for elected officials,” he said of the upcoming task force’s analysis of the ordinance. “We’re asking to be regulated in a smart, reasonable matter … we welcome the opportunity.”

SAPD Assistant Director Steven Baum gave a presentation of SAPD and TAB research gathered since April.

“A majority of cities have taken a middle ground,” Baum said. They don’t outright ban TNCs, but they don’t let them operate without some sort of regulation. “The transportation industry is changing … if concessions are made for one (type of company), we’d do them for all.

“The permitting process, licence process, driver qualifications …. those standards are fixed across the industry.”

District 10 Councilman Mike Gallagher voiced a concern that there might be a “relaxing” of standards to accommodate Lyft and Uber.

Relaxed is the wrong word, Baum said. “Changing the manner in which we ensure the standard is met” is more accurate.

District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales, District 3 Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran, District __ Councilman Cris Medina and Dristict 10 Councilman Mike Gallagher listen to citizens to be heard during the City Council Public Safety Committee meeting May 7, 2014. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales, District 3 Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran, District 7 Councilman and Chairman of the Public Safety Committee Cris Medina and Dristict 10 Councilman Mike Gallagher listen to citizens to be heard during the Public Safety Committee meeting May 7, 2014. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Dozens of advocates on both sides spoke passionately in City Council Chambers to more than 100 people in the room at the peak of the meeting.

Reading from a prepared statement, 80/20 Foundation Deputy Director Scott Meltzer said the real issue was San Antonio’s lack of “robust consumer choice options in transportation,” and how these new companies fill that gap.

“Ridesharing companies, such as Lyft and Uber, are becoming part of the menu (that) talent is looking at when they research the qualities of a city,” Meltzer said.

80/20 Foundation Executive Director Lorenzo Gomez started an online petition in favor of rideshare in San Antonio at Change.org.

All taxi industry supporters stood while John Bouloubasis, president of Yellow Cab San Antonio, delivered his remarks to the committee. Usually armed with a large binder full of research, Bouloubasis has become the unofficial spokesperson on the issue. He is constantly finding new evidence, he says, that Lyft and Uber are a poor transit alternative for San Antonio.

Citizens holds signs in protest against Lyft and Uber at the City Council Public Safety Committee meeting May 7, 2014. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Citizens holds signs in protest against Lyft and Uber at the City Council Public Safety Committee meeting May 7, 2014. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

He brought with him a printout of a Craigslist listing from a woman in San Antonio who wanted to rent someone’s car to use as her own so that she can make money as a Lyft driver. “Looking for someone who has an extra car (reliable) they don’t use to let me pay you 100 a week to use it or buy it and work for Lyft (a driving company…sorta like a taxi cab.)”

“Do you think she’s going to have insurance?” he asked.

The yellow shirts laughed.

Related Stories:

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Fear of Change Holds Back Rideshare in San Antonio

Idled for Now, ‘Rideshare’ Apps Offer Free Rides

Car Share Conversation Now on City’s Agenda

Dear Chief McManus, Let’s Welcome Lyft to San Antonio

Iris Dimmick

Iris Dimmick

Senior reporter Iris Dimmick covers City Hall, politics, development, and more. Contact her at iris@rivardreport.com