Rideshare drivers and riders will likely be able to fire up their Lyft ride-hailing mobile applications in San Antonio soon this month. City officials announced that a short-term, pilot operating agreements will be available for all transportation network companies (TNCs). Lyft has already signed a preliminary agreement with the City, Uber has not.
A main sticking point in the negotiations to bring back rideshare has been the issue of background checks, so the pilot agreement requires TNCs to provide passengers with a choice: to ride with a driver that has gone through a third-party background check or to select a driver that has also gone through the City's 10-fingerprint background check.
If approved by City Council next Thursday, the pilot agreement – the first if its kind in cities with rideshare – would last for nine months and then be up for review. The City will also host at least two town hall meetings during this time to collect feedback from drivers, riders, rideshare companies, and probably from the traditional vehicle-for-hire industry.
President of Yellow Cab San Antonio John Bouloubasis, who has been at the forefront of the local campaign against rideshare, issued this statement:
"The choice this agreement pushes onto consumers is significant and could have a direct and dangerous consequence to them. Public safety is not a part-time responsibility for city governments but its highest calling. Is it good government to ask the citizens of San Antonio to make the choice between a ‘safe' driver or a ‘risky' driver late at night, after having a few drinks? The answer is no and it is proven by the almost-daily stories of alleged rapes and sexual assaults, criminal acts, and bad behavior by TNC drivers from around the U.S. Since when does government adopt a ‘buyer beware’ attitude when it comes to people’s lives and safety?”
City officials said there no representatives from cab companies involved in crafting the new agreement.
During an interview Friday afternoon Councilmember Roberto Treviño (D1), who had been tasked by Mayor Ivy Taylor and the City Manager's office in June to represent the Council during the City's meetings with rideshare representatives, said the agreement offers "a creative solution that can offer a road map to bringing back rideshare longterm, centered around consumer choice.
“This agreement is not exclusive to Lyft," he added. "We're open for any and all TNCs (to operate in San Antonio)."
While driver profiles are not new to Lyft's platform, the option to let passengers know if they've been through an additional background check is.
"I don't know of any other city that has this," said Lyft spokesperson Chelsea Wilson, who added that Lyft will also be adding an option to include veteran status on driver profiles.
When hailing a ride through a rideshare/TNC app, users will be able to look at the driver's profile and see if they've gone through the additional City background check. From there, the passenger can choose whether to cancel the ride and wait to find a driver that has taken the additional steps. All drivers are required to go through Lyft's background check before picking up fares, which includes local and state databases. The City's 10-fingerprint check will be optional.
Lyft will not be promoting or advertising this new element of driver profiles – that will be an initiative that the City will take on with public service announcements and a general awareness campaign, Treviño said. Users will have to click on their driver's profile information in order to see if they've been through the City's background check process.
City officials said they were hopeful that other rideshare companies would also sign an agreement, but Uber was not supportive of this particular arrangement when it was being discussed last month.
“We have made a lot of progress in our discussions with the city, but this is one proposal we cannot accept because it will do nothing to enhance public safety. We are hopeful we can finalize an agreement in the near future that incorporates all the other safety initiatives we have developed with the city,” Uber spokesperson Debbee Hancock stated in an email in response to the then-forming idea.
Uber and Lyft closed up shop within City limits on April 1 despite revisions in the vehicle for hire ordinance that relaxed some of the tougher provisions passed late last year. Company drivers have since been legally picking up passengers only in suburban cities, such as Windcrest, Alamo Heights, Olmos Park and Hollywood Park. Currently the ride-booking mobile applications allow drivers to drop passengers off in San Antonio, but not pick them up inside the city limits.
The proposed operating agreement stipulates that current business practices remain in place, said Deputy City Manager Erik Walsh, such as compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, driver training, the non-discrimination ordinance, zero tolerance for drug or alcohol abuse, and up-to-date third party vehicle inspections.
Lyft drivers would also be able to pick up fares from the airport under the agreement, but pay a $1 fee – just like taxis and limousines do. Lyft will also pay a nine-month $18,000 permitting fee to the City, which has been pro-rated from the local ordinance's fee of $25,000 per year. The San Antonio Police Department (SAPD) will also conduct random spot checks.
"Between the two processes, my preference as chief would be the 10-print process," SAPD Chief Anthony Treviño said. "But this (agreement) moves us towards consumers being able to make an educated decision as to (which driver) they want to go with."
SAPD and City staff, along with Lyft representatives, would check in with City Council every three months of the agreement as "it's really a test drive to see what could work," he said.
So how will we know if riders prefer one background check over the other? What does success look like?
Wilson said that Lyft will be able to provide some data throughout the agreement, in terms of where rides originate and end, but that tracking profile and ridership data to find out if City-certified drivers are getting more rides than non-certified drivers presented some "logistical issues."
"Profile information is not necessarily something we track," she said, "it's very different than data we receive (from) GPS."
Wilson added that they'll continue to work with the City on figuring out those logistics.
Perhaps Tech Bloc could be of service. The technology industry advocacy organization has been working closely with the parties at the negotiating table and helped facilitate meetings. One of its first goals was, after all, to bring rideshare back to San Antonio.
“(Tech Bloc's role) started with bringing a technology perspective – understanding the importance of not only rideshare but embracing technology companies in San Antonio – it’s good for business," said Tom Cuthbert, one of Tech Bloc's founding members. "But as we got into the discussion we kind of viewed our role as participating by giving context (of rideshare as an amenity to attract tech workers) and then throwing out some ideas to add to the creativity that was put on the table.”
This story will be updated with more details throughout the evening.
*Featured/top image: The pink mustache is Lyft's calling card, but many drivers in San Antonio have opted out of identifying themselves as a Lyft driver in this way. Photo by Iris Dimmick.