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A City Council committee discussed two transportation items Wednesday and took no action regarding the creation of a new permit to let cab drivers operate their own taxis independent of cab companies. The committee voted to take the item about allowing group cycle companies to obtain unlimited operating permits to City Council for an official vote.
Members of the Council’s Criminal Justice, Public Safety, and Services Committee acted with caution in respect to the taxi permit cap and delayed sending it to Council for a vote but agreed to consider granting more permits for the group cycle companies.
Currently four group cycle companies operate in the city primarily around the Pearl district and Southtown, and they are currently limited by ordinance to one cycle permit per company. Group cycles, also known as party bikes, are vehicles that feature multiple cycle seats and are used for social events and tours.
Neighborhoods and residents have not complained about group cycles’ presence in the streets, Baum said, so City staff recommends opening up the opportunity for more permits.
The City has already implemented a reduction in permit fees and relaxed city regulations for the taxi cab industry in light of the emergence of transportation network companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft, but a group of around 200 taxi cab drivers submitted a petition in November 2016 to remove the cap on taxi permits. They claim that the opportunity to grant unlimited permits would level the playing field for taxi cab drivers, since rideshare companies don’t have a cap on granting permits to their drivers.
“New technologies have changed a lot in our societies, and we need to take this into consideration,” said Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3), who chairs the committee. “To say yes or no now is premature.”
With the taxi permit issue tabled, it remains to be seen if the topic will arise again in future, especially considering that “the council’s complexion is going to change,” Assistance Police Director Steven Baum told the Rivard Report. “Who knows if the new council is going to see this as an issue they’re going to entertain? I understand the plight of the drivers, but [Council] is not sure if [removing the cap] is going to make it better or make it worse.”
At least five Council members will be new following runoff elections on June 10.
Baum explained that under the current Chapter 33 of the Vehicle-for-Hire Ordinance, taxi cab companies pay for permits.
“We have 886 permits for 24 companies, and they hire drivers to drive those cabs,” Baum said. “What the drivers want is to create an owner-operator permit so they can own and operate their cab all by themselves.”
Baum told the Council that administrative and enforcement challenges would arise if owner-operator taxi permits were implemented, but that staff is confident the industry will acclimate over a period of time.
In April 2015, San Diego approved a similar request within their Vehicle-for-Hire ordinance, and although they were “overwhelmed” at the beginning, Baum said, the market steadied and returned to a manageable level after two years.
Several taxi cab drivers who are against removing the taxi permit cap stood up to speak Wednesday during the citizens-to-be-heard portion of the meeting. They said that in order to maintain quality standards, safety, and avoid price inflation or exploitation, companies should still control most taxi cabs and the permit cap should remain.
“This would have unlimited vehicles on the road, and there’s not enough business for everyone,” said Kenny Chen, who has worked as a general manager for Yellow Cab for 10 years.
Individuals in favor of owner-operator permits said the change would help taxi drivers work less or more flexible hours and keep a majority of their income, instead of giving a big portion of their earnings to the taxi cab companies.
“We’re putting too much money into the [taxi cab] companies’ hands,” said driver Luis Rodriguez. “Some of us work 18 hours a day just to give money to the company and provide for our families.”
Adrian Gonzalez, who has been a taxi driver for 13 years, said that ever since San Antonio embraced rideshare, his business has declined 40%. He believes that unlimited permits would make people like him “become extinct” and will signify the end of the taxi cab industry.
George Alba, vice chair of the city’s Transportation Advisory Board, said taxicab company owners believe going to an owner-operator model would further saturate the vehicle for hire market in the City.
“This would create a survival of the fittest model, and TAB voted unanimously to reject this proposal,” Alba said. “I’ve discussed this with airport officials and it would overwhelm the airport.”
In addition to concerns that the San Antonio International Airport doesn’t have the resources to regulate so many taxis, others said the City doesn’t have the staff necessary to regulate so many independent taxi cab drivers.
“We already have overburdened taxi stands at the airport, and it’s a huge issue right now,” Councilman Mike Gallagher (D10) said. “With the growth of technology we should have the numbers of the TNCs out there – we need to be thinking about public safety and this needs to be further studied before we make a sensible, educated decision.”
Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), Councilman Ray Lopez (D6), and Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5) agreed with Gallagher and Viagran.
“We need to continue these discussions and learn more to make sure we don’t impact anyone adversely … and that we’re not using through something regarding transportation policy,” Treviño said.