Mayoral candidate Mike Villarreal used his smart phone to summon an Uber driver Wednesday morning to ferry him from home to City Hall where he staged a press conference defending the presence of rideshare services in San Antonio.
Villarreal, a former state representative who stepped down to become the city's first candidate for mayor in the May 9 city elections, won't get a say when City Council votes on strict rideshare regulations Thursday. The city's taxi monopoly lobbied aggressively for the heavy regulations after failing to get the services blocked here. Rideshare advocates say the regulations are designed to be so restrictive they will drive Uber and its competitor Lyft out of the city.
Council's intention to go forward with a vote before it adjourns for a holiday break didn't stop Villarreal from using the bully pulpit to make it clear that if he is elected as mayor, he'll work to make San Antonio a rideshare-friendly city.
"It took all of 10 minutes to download the app, enter (personal and credit card) information, and have my ride show up," he said at the press conference. "It was amazing – clean, comfortable, safe. And so as a candidate for mayor of San Antonio I'm here today to let voters know where I stand on rideshare."
Villarreal called for City Council to listen to the larger business community, outside of the entrenched taxi industry that is largely controlled by the owner of Yellow Cab, and vote against the proposed rules that include expensive, time-consuming regulations that rideshare company representatives say are anti-free market and pose an unreasonable burden.
Villarreal called for a delay in Council action, citing an open letter sent to Mayor Ivy Taylor and the City Council by Rackspace Co-founder and Chairman Graham Weston that was published on the Rivard Report. Weston extolled the benefits of rideshare here and in more than 250 U.S. cities. He called on Council to table the matter until the new year when the matter can be reconsidered in a more deliberative manner than the final meeting before the holidays.
Updated at 4:40 p.m.: Leticia Van de Putte, who is also running for mayor, released a statement at 1 p.m. Wednesday calling for City Council to table the rideshare matter:
“A delay in City action is warranted. The community should have the opportunity to process this recent information and stakeholders should have more time to collaboratively develop solutions. San Antonio has and should take the opportunity to learn from others and build on their successes as we adapt regulations to accommodate the operation of ride-share," Van de Putte stated. “I have complete confidence that San Antonio will rise to this challenge as we continue to grow and build the next great American city.”
The rules regulating rideshare will be presented for a vote Thursday to a City Council that has lost much of its continuity and stability. Mayor Ivy Taylor is serving out the remaining 300 days of former Mayor Julián Castro's third term, which he vacated to become Secretary of Housing and Urban Development in the Obama administration. Mayor Taylor told the Rivard Report last week that she will make a decision about running for a full term as mayor sometime before the Feb. 28 deadline. For now, she has to contend with holding the office on an interim basis and trying to govern and lead a constantly shifting Council while Villarreal and his challenger, state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, openly campaign for the job.
Two of the 10 Council members will be present Thursday only on an interim basis, and each one in peculiar circumstances.
One of 14 candidates will be chosen by Council at the start of the Thursday session as the interim District 1 representative to replace Diego Bernal, who resigned to seek Villarreal's seat in the Texas House. That individual will be thrust immediately into the rideshare debate and vote.
Interim District 2 Councilmember Keith Toney lost a runoff election Tuesday to political newcomer Alan Warrick II, but will serve until the vote is certified during a special City Council meeting on Dec. 16. Toney has said he will vote in favor of the rideshare regulations before surrendering his seat to Warrick, who supports rideshare.
A third member, District 7 Councilmember Cris Medina, recently returned from three months of reserve military service and remains the subject of a federal investigation into the use of his officeholder account.
Villarreal joined Weston in calling on the Council to table the matter, and he described a fast-changing city driven by Millennials and technology shifts affecting work and lifestyle, citing rideshare as an essential offering in any city seeking to attract and retain talented young professionals.
"We have built a culture at Rackspace that attracts talented engineers to San Antonio, and retains thousands of the ones who grew up here and once had to move elsewhere to pursue careers in Internet technology," stated Weston in his letter. "But our ability to lure and keep the talented people we need to run our company is affected by what San Antonio has to offer as a place to live."
"We need to keep San Antonio a dynamic city, a city that is open to innovation and that attracts our young professionals and those from all over the country. Voting against ridesharing will send a signal to the world that San Antonio is not a modern city, is not innovative, is not progressive. It's the last thing that we want to do for our city," Villarreal said. "It (also) takes drunk drivers off the road in a convenient, affordable, efficient way and that should not ever be ignored. That is a particular concern that is relevant to everybody in this city whether they use this system or not."
While there should be a strong interest in public safety when allowing new businesses to enter the transportation market, he said, "This is not an either-or situation. We can be open to technical innovations and we can assure public safety. Other cities have struck the right balance. Both are important."
Taxi and limousine companies have rallied around the proposed regulation, which requires rideshare drivers and their vehicles to go through similar, extensive testing that traditional cabbies undergo. Rideshare companies argue that these test are extraneous and impede part-time drivers – which make up a substantial portion of Lyft and Uber drivers – from signing up.
*Featured/top image: Mayoral candidate Mike Villarreal addresses media outside City Hall. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
See all rideshare coverage here.