Scott Ball / Rivard Report
City Council will vote on a four-year plan for regulating popular ride-hailing services on Thursday, Dec. 8, a decision that will determine whether Uber and Lyft will continue to operate in San Antonio.
Council will also consider changes to the ordinance that regulates traditional taxi, limousines, and other vehicles for hire in an attempt to “level the playing field” with technology companies.
At the heart of the debate and a divided City Council are advocates on one side, who believe rideshare services are the best way to reduce high levels of drunk driving in the city while providing a convenient transportation option to others, and opponents, who continue to say background checks on rideshare drivers lack the necessary rigor.
Less discussed is the disruptive effect rideshare has had here and in other cities on the traditional taxi industry. Rideshare apps easily downloaded to smart phones have given consumers much more efficient ways to hail rides, especially at off hours. Many rideshare users prefer the late-model sedans driven by most rideshare drivers to traditional yellow cabs.
At the center of the Council debate is City Councilman Joe Krier (D9), whose swing vote is seen by both sides as the key to success or failure on Dec. 8.
The rideshare companies and the taxi fleet owners have spent liberally trying to win the support of officeholders and influence public opinion. Advocates and opponents will be holding rallies, press conferences, and meetings in the run-up to the vote to rally support for and against the new regulations.
Tech Bloc, a technology industry advocacy organization, is hosting a Rally to Keep Rideshare at Burleson Yard on the city’s near-Eastside Tuesday, Nov. 29 from 5-9:30 p.m. Mayor Ivy Taylor will deliver a “call to action,” according to the event page on Facebook.
On Wednesday, Uber launched “Ditch Your Keys,”a local version of a campaign it has rolled out in other cities, in which it partners with major employers to encourage commuters to leave their cars at home. Rackspace employees can receive discounts on rides to and from the company’s offices this week by entering the code DITCHKEYS2016.
“San Antonio’s in fierce competition for top talent as we strive to grow our economy and expand opportunities for everyone in our city,” Tech Bloc Chairman and former Rackspace President Lew Moorman stated in a news release. “We need a local business environment that is friendly to innovation and the lifestyle experiences important to creative class workers. Rideshare services like Uber are a big part of this.”
Those opposed to what they call “relaxed” safety regulations of ride-hailing companies will also hold events before the vote, said Robert Feria, who has helped organize previous protests as part of the group San Antonio Progressive Alliance.
The City’s pilot rideshare program, which made fingerprint backgrounds checks optional for drivers using mobile platforms, was narrowly approved by City Council last August with a 6-5 vote. The vote on Dec. 8 is expected to be just as close. This time, a proposed four-year plan would extend the operating agreements for another year, and three more years could be approved administratively by City management without a Council vote.
Mayor Taylor and Council members Roberto Treviño (D1), Alan Warrick (D2), Rey Saldaña (D4), Ron Nirenberg (D8), and Krier (D9) voted in favor of the pilot last year.
“(This is) a big step forward for our community because we’ve developed an innovative agreement that can be a model for expanding choice and utilizing technology to provide better and more information for consumers,” Mayor Ivy Taylor said last year. “We are saying – loudly – that San Antonio is open for business.”
Council members Mike Gallagher (D10), Ray Lopez (D6), Cris Medina (D7), Shirley Gonzales (D5), and Rebecca Viagran (D3) voted against the pilot operating agreements, citing passenger security concerns. They and vocal taxi industry stakeholders argue that the third-party background checks of rideshare drivers that rely on local and state databases are insufficient in ensuring passenger safety.
“Making public safety optional is not an option for me,” Viagran said before casting her vote against the agreement last year.
The operating agreement requires that so-called transportation network companies (TNCs) give passengers hailing vehicles via apps the option to choose between riders who have submitted or not submitted to a 10-point fingerprint background check. The process requires drivers to appear at a law enforcement office for the fingerprinting and to pay a fee, an experience some liken to being placed under arrest and processed. Rideshare companies have opposed such “onerous” requirements here and in other cities.
On Thursday, Viagran said her position hasn’t changed, and that she is looking forward to seeing what kind of proposals City staff has explored in the way of compromise.
“My main issue will be public safety,” she told the Rivard Report. She added that she is not completely sure that the pilot program was a fair gauge of the public’s demand for fingerprint background checks.
The mobile apps don’t clearly indicate which drivers have or have not been fingerprinted, she said. If a rider does know how to tell the difference – by looking for a registration number on the driver’s profile – then they have to cancel the ride and wait for another driver to accept their ride request. Neither Lyft nor Uber have promoted the fingerprint option on their respective platforms to drivers or riders, so the City launched its own awareness campaign.
“It’s really not an ‘option’ if they’re making it so difficult, and I think there are ways to make it easier,” Viagran said, who participated in public input meetings about rideshare held in the spring and summer.
As of last Friday, 371 drivers had applied to take the fingerprint check, according to a City spokesperson, and 280 have been approved, leaving 91 still “in process.” Uber and Lyft have declined to share total numbers of active drivers. The fingerprint check fee is covered by the companies’ permitting fees.
Councilman Joe Krier (D9) is unimpressed.
“Less than 300? That is not a satisfactory effort and those are not satisfactory results,” he said Thursday. “Unless I am convinced that there will be a much more aggressive effort and it has success in (fingerprinting more drivers), there’s a good chance that I would be against renewing the program.”
Click here to learn more about the pilot operating agreement structure.
Both City Council members and the public will have a chance to review data on the pilot program collected by City staff and the San Antonio Police Department during its meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 30 at 2 p.m. – one day after the rideshare rally at Burleson Yard and one week before the vote.
Viagran hopes that City staff will come to the table with research on regulatory options beyond optional background checks, that could be tried in San Antonio.
Rideshare companies currently operate in Texas cities like Houston, Dallas-Fort Worth, and El Paso, but Lyft and Uber left Austin earlier this year when voters passed regulations that included mandatory fingerprinting. Smaller companies like RideAustin, GetMe, and Fasten have cropped up in their place, but customers often face longer wait times and spotty coverage. Austin Transportation Department reported fingerprinting more than 3,000 drivers between January and August, according to the local NBC news affiliate KXAN.
With the NFL Super Bowl on Feb. 5, a temporary agreement was worked out in Houston with Uber that requires fingerprinting, but removes other requirements and reduces the cost of permitting from about $200 to $70. That deal only lasts through 2017, but Viagran said she would like to explore similar compromises here.
Councilman Treviño, who was involved in the formulation of the pilot agreement, is confident that the year-long experiment has proven that San Antonio can sustain both traditional and technologically advanced ride-hailing services.
“Taxi service at the airport has not gone down, we’ve just created more market – isn’t that what we’re after?” Treviño told the Rivard Report Thursday. “We’ve created a platform that gives people the chance to make an educated decision. … And after a year of testing that model here in San Antonio we’ve got our own data. It’s matching our hypothesis.”
He hasn’t seen any “credible” reports of rideshare drivers abusing passengers.
“The idea that someone would go through the hoops and hurdles to become a rideshare driver (for the specific purpose of) breaking the law is a far reach,” Treviño said.
And the public safety issue is about more than fingerprinting, he added. “It’s also had an impact on drunk driving.”
Tech Bloc CEO David Heard agrees.
“The bigger issue here is drunk driving,” he told the Rivard Report on Tuesday. “We have a problem.”
Texas is among the worst states for drunk driving rates. While a conclusive causation has yet to be drawn, the number of drunk driving charges in Bexar County has decreased in 2016 and many attribute that to the proliferation of rideshare.
“These services address (drunk driving) by making it very easy and efficient to get a ride instead of getting behind the wheel,” Heard said. “If you’re not enabling their decisions about how to get home safely via the latest technology … then your’e not doing what you need to do as a community to make our roads safer.”
San Antonio is not the first or last city to go back and forth on rideshare, but many hope that the City’s solution will be looked to as a model for how to reach a compromise. Others fear that Uber and Lyft, which are multi-million dollar companies, will run traditional companies – both small and large – out of business because they don’t have to “play by the same rules.”
Feria, who is working with local taxi companies to organize protests against ride-hailing mobile applications, said safety standards should not be lowered to accommodate companies like Uber and Lyft.
“I don’t think removing the regulations that were so hard fought (for) by (the taxi and limousine industry) – primarily people of color – should be rolled back,” Feria told the Rivard Report. “And the problem with (fingerprinting) being optional is that now (background checks) all go through Uber itself. That’s not accountability. If small, local businesses can obey the rules, it’s unfair for mega corporations to come into town and not follow them.”
Drivers are not gainfully employed of TNCs; rather, they are independent contract workers, who aren’t eligible for health and other benefits.
“The riders and drivers themselves are being exploited,” Feria added.
City Council considered making changes to its vehicle for hire ordinance in October. These changes, which will also be voted on in December, would attempt to equalize the fees companies and drivers pay and remove some outdated requirements that cab drivers have to follow.