San Antonio’s new rules for rideshare companies go into effect April 1 and controversy over the regulation of transportation network companies (TNCs) continues as Uber and Lyft prepare to leave San Antonio. Company representatives say the rules are too restrictive and burdensome to operate within city limits.
The mayors of Windcrest, Alamo Heights, Olmos Park and Hollywood Park, however, feel otherwise, and joined forces at a Wednesday press conference to express support for Uber to stay in the local service area and continue to operate in Bexar County suburban municipalities.
Windcrest City Council is to vote Wednesday evening on a resolution that would lead to an interim operating agreement with Uber, allowing that company to keep serving its city. Windcrest is home to a host of small and large businesses, including Rackspace‘s corporate headquarters at the former Windsor Park Mall, as well as a large number of retired military veterans.
Alamo Heights, Olmos Park and Terrell Hills city councils each will consider a similar resolution in April. This follows the San Antonio City Council’s 8-2 vote earlier this month to change several rules and regulations pertaining to its vehicle for hire ordinance. The new rules soften the blow of regulations passed in December 2014, but are still more costly to TNCs than other city ordinances like the one approved by Austin’s City Council.
Many citizens in San Antonio have grown accustomed to using rideshare services, which uses a mobile application to connects drivers of private vehicles to passengers. The big questions now is whether Uber drivers picking up a passenger in Windcrest or another Bexar County suburb can be allowed to drive San Antonio roads to deliver passengers to their destinations within San Antonio, such as the San Antonio International Airport.
“If it originates in Windcrest (or another permitted city), they can take the passenger anywhere, whether it’s Bexar County or Houston. That’s how I interpret the law. Then again that’s something for lawyers to squabble over,” Windcrest Mayor Alan Baxter said.
Olmos Park Mayor Kenneth Farrimond has talked with City Attorney Frank Garza and that their feeling is that even with these suburban agreements, Uber drivers and passengers will still be limited in what they can do in San Antonio city limits. Cooper questioned whether San Antonio law enforcement could enforce Uber drivers transporting suburban passengers in any way.
Sgt. Javier Salazar, spokesperson for the San Antonio Police Department, later said if and when Windcrest or another Bexar County suburb issues a driver’s permit, TNCs may use San Antonio streets only to drop off fares initiated in a city where the permit was issued.
So, if approved in Windcrest, you can call an Uber within its city limits and have it drop you off in San Antonio, but you’ll have to find another way back.
“If a pick-up begins in another city, other than a permitted city, they may not travel through San Antonio,” he added. Salazar said San Antonio’s ordinance can be enforced in a number of ways, including a sting operation or via routine traffic enforcement.
Uber helped come up with verbiage in a proposed interim operating agreement, which acts as the basis for a resolution that smaller Bexar County cities such as Windcrest could adopt to keep Uber operating locally. The safety regulations outlined in the proposed local operating pact are similar to those in an agreement to which the city of Austin recently agreed to.
A key sticking point for Uber and Lyft with San Antonio’s ordinance is the mandated, increased insurance and 10-point fingerprint background check for all drivers within 14 days after they pick up their first passenger. The Windcrest agreement would require less insurance and rely on the TNC to perform background checks on drivers.
A clause provides for renegotiation between a smaller city and Uber if the suburb passes a superseding ordinance that results in more restrictive rules and regulations for ride-sharing. If Windcrest were to approve its resolution tonight, locals who wish to drive for Uber could begin the permitting process Thursday.
During the press conference at Windcrest City Hall, the mayors of Windcrest, Alamo Heights, Olmos Park and Hollywood Park expressed comfort with Uber’s existing insurance coverage and driver background check rules. They also said they welcome competition that Uber and other rideshare companies bring to the San Antonio area.
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“We believe Uber to be a valuable service,” Baxter said, adding that the City of Windcrest is a “forward-thinking community.”
Tim Maloney, president of the Windcrest Economic Development Corp., said that San Antonio’s recent actions toward regulating rideshare discourages the growth of such ventures, but that the smaller cities want to formally roll out the welcome mat.
“It is disappointing that the City of San Antonio has taken this tactic,” Maloney said. “Hopefully by this show of unanimity among us at the table, we’ll encourage (San Antonio) to rethink their policy. We strongly encourage them to work more diligently toward keeping Uber in the community.”
Alamo Heights Mayor Louis Cooper said he’s been a fan of ridesharing for many years and lived in cities that have such services, including Dallas.
“I can guarantee from the research I’ve done that it helps cut down on (driving while intoxicated numbers) and helps with revenue for a bar or restaurant,” Cooper said. He explained that some patrons at a bar or restaurant may feel inclined to stay longer there knowing a ride-share is available to drive them home or to another location.
Cooper said the technology enables him to help keep track of his daughter when she uses a rideshare, as well as keeping track of the driver.
But small cities and others around Bexar County are not anti-taxi cab, he said. Cab companies have lobbied extensively with San Antonio to have rigorous, comprehensive rules in place for ride-shares, particularly pertaining to insurance and safety.
Traditional taxi companies have called for an even playing field in the vehicle for hire business.
“In Alamo Heights, we love competition. We believe competition to be good, we just want our citizens to have a choice,” he said, adding that it’s “short-sighted” for San Antonio to indirectly not allow residents in Alamo Heights and other suburbs to not have a choice.
“Windcrest welcomes taxicabs as well. We just know that competition is important, and that some of our citizens like this type of rideshare,” Baxter added. “Competition makes everyone step up their game and can be good for everybody.”
The Windcrest mayor said he uses rideshare to circumvent parking issues when visiting downtown San Antonio.
The Alamo Heights mayor emphasized that companies such as Uber provide a safe alternative in transportation and complements services offered by taxicabs and similar traditional modes of transit.
Farrimond said because San Antonio is requiring Uber and Lyft to follow certain stringent rules to operate in the city, taxicabs should be asked to provide services that the rideshare offer – a more sophisticated mobile app that provides driver information to passengers, driver ratings, and mobile payment.
Hollywood Park Mayor Chris Fails said the resolutions for an interim operating agreement with Uber in the suburbs also represent an embracing of free market competition and new technology.
Maloney said it’s disheartening that passengers and drivers willing to spend their own money and time on rideshare will not have total freedom in terms of where they can be picked up/operate.
“I think the absurdity of it all will become apparent very quickly,” Maloney added.
Officials with Uber and major businesses such as Rackspace applauded suburban leaders’ efforts to help keep rideshare in the San Antonio area. Graham Weston, Rackspace’s co-founder and current board chairman, wrote Baxter on March 23, expressing support.
Weston wrote that, typically, the cost to take a rideshare from his New Braunfels home on business trips into San Antonio and back is less than if he were to take a cab. He added that Uber requires aspiring part-time drivers to pass company standards, and to drive their own car, “which, in my experience, are almost always newer and better maintained than the cars used by traditional taxi companies.”
Henry Carr, Uber’s general manager in San Antonio, recently wrote to Bexar County suburban mayors and city managers/administrators, accepting their support for the ride-share service.
Carr wrote: “Continuing to operate in your city will mean adhering to the same safety regulations outlined in the Austin ordinance, including but not limited to: a comprehensive multi-state background check for all drivers; $1 million of commercial insurance from the time a ride is accepted until passengers are dropped off; a zero-tolerance drug and alcohol policy with the means to bar a partner driver from the platform immediately if they are in violation; and clear privacy guidelines to protect the personal information of passengers.”
*Featured/top image: Photo via Uber’s Instagram account.