Rideshare is a subject of passionate debate in San Antonio. Many San Antonians have come to see ride-booking technology as an essential piece of a modern, multimodal transportation system, but concerns about public safety and strong lobbying efforts from the traditional vehicle-for-hire industry have brought the debate to a temporary compromise.
The City hosted the first of two “rideshare roundtable” discussions on Wednesday where more than 70 local residents – drivers and riders – and other stakeholders shared their perspectives on how rideshare companies should be regulated beyond the pilot agreement.
The sticking point is whether the same regulations used for the traditional vehicle for hire industry – including mandated fingerprint background checks on drivers – should also apply to rideshare, so-called transportation network companies (TNCs). The nine-month pilot agreement signed by four TNCs operating in San Antonio makes the fingerprint background checks optional. All drivers must take third-party, multi-district background check required by TNCs. Austin voters recently rejected a measure developed by rideshare companies Lyft and Uber that would eliminate fingerprint background checks. Those companies have ceased their operations in Austin until further notice.
Some participants on Wednesday believed that imposing the same regulations onTNC drivers would make the transportation market fair. Some called for an overhaul of regulations across the board. Others said the pilot agreement should be continued indefinitely. Several rideshare drivers said they didn’t mind taking the fingerprint check but others said it was an unnecessary and cumbersome extra step.
The lively conversations that took place Wednesday night are similar to those taking place in living rooms, restaurants and offices public and private across the city. City Council will review the information gathered in June, when another lively conversation is sure to take place.
Drivers in the traditional vehicle for hire industry – which include taxicabs, limousines, tours, charters, horse-drawn carriages and pedicabs – are highly regulated under Chapter 33 of the City’s municipal code which includes a myriad of other mandates that several City Council members see as outdated given the demand for more options and introduction of new technology.
“Leveling the playing field” has been a topic of discussion since TNCs returned to San Antonio in summer of 2015.
“There should be some regulations for all the transportation providers (in San Antonio) because of public safety,” said Michael Khadem, president and CEO of limousine and charter company Enterprise Transportation, Inc. “It should be fair. I don’t believe there should be rules for taxi and limousine companies” while ridesharing companies have optional requirements.
Other participants in the taxi industry expressed frustration with Lyft and Uber, saying that their lack of security measures like fingerprint background checks and drug tests make them an unsafe transportation option.
“I’m not against you guys, I just want you to do what we do,” said cab driver Shawn Jordan. “And I don’t want my industry to be deregulated because I believe in what we do for safety.”
When someone requests an Uber ride, for example, the user is able to see whether or not the driver has completed the fingerprint check, and has the option to cancel the ride and order another.
Lyft and Uber, the most popular TNCs, do not provide a feature on their platforms for users to specifically request a driver that has taken that extra step. Drivers are typically assigned by proximity.
To date, around 170 San Antonio drivers have applied for the background checks, said San Antonio Police Department Assistant Director Steven Baum, and about 120 have completed the process.
Some rideshare drivers on Wednesday said the fingerprint check process was too cumbersome.The appeal of driving for a TNC for many drivers is that it’s quick and easy part-time work. Uber driver Alan Johnson said he went through a series of dead end phone calls and various office visits to fill out paperwork, only to complete the process more than two weeks later.
“This really is not a simple, streamlined process,” he said. “Anybody who has a full-time job or family that’s going to be going through this process would have to take multiple days off work to be able to get this done.”
Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3), who chairs the Council’s Criminal Justice, Public Safety and Services Committee, is a staunch supporter of requiring fingerprint checks for TNCs and said the City will begin assessing ways to make the certification process easier.
“If it wasn’t (easy) for some people, then we have a lot of work to do on that, because if it’s going to be something that the community says they want to make mandatory or something that they want to make voluntary, whatever it is, we need to make sure that it is a smooth process for everybody,” she said.
The data and anecdotal feedback from the community gatherings and the City’s online survey will be presented to City Council, Viagran said, and from there they will figure out next steps in regards to the agreement and the future of rideshare in San Antonio. Council has been divided in support of the experimental rideshare agreement, and amending it is one of several possibilities that are “on the table,” Viagran added, as is codifying regulations within Chapter 33.
“There are a lot of different elements that we really need to take a look at when we’re dealing with this larger conversation as we move forward,” she said. “Our main points are the public safety, the regulations” and if citizens see a need for rideshare in the city.
Tracking the number of drivers and passengers who use services like Lyft and Uber is difficult since both companies have refused to release that data. Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), who played a key role in the creation of the rideshare operating agreements, said Uber and Lyft representatives were present at Wednesday’s gathering, but they did not identify themselves to participants.
Treviño said gathering public feedback is important in crafting an operating agreement that could be seen as a “model” for other cities.
“We think that this is really important not only to our community, but someday we’re going to get to set the tone for the state and even the nation,” he said. “We feel like we’ve created a pilot program that has been very successful, it’s made a very positive impact … and I think it’s incredible how we can use this model for other issues that we might have.”
The City will host another “rideshare roundtable” on Wednesday, June 1 from 5:30-7 p.m. at TriPoint YMCA Grantham Hall, 3233 N. St Mary’s. Residents are also encouraged to participate in the online survey at www.sanantonio.gov/rideshare.
Top image:Drivers sit and discuss matters during the city hosted round table discussion. Photo by Scott Ball.