San Antonio City Council approved dozens of changes to local rules for taxis, limousines, pedicabs, equine drawn carriages, and other vehicles for hire Thursday morning. Taxi and limousine company owners praised several changes as steps in the right direction toward “leveling the playing field” against their main competition: Rideshare companies Uber and Lyft.
The City’s Transportation Advisory Board, comprised of 11 members appointed by the Mayor and each City Council member, will continue to discuss further changes later this year.
Some changes are minor, including vehicle definitions and regulatory language updates. There are significant changes, too, including elimination of the requirement for drivers to undergo a physical every two years, and allowing vehicles up to 12 years old to remain in service as long as they pass inspection. Before, vehicles eight years old or newer were allowed.
Many more of the requirements in Chapter 33 of the City’s code, which regulates vehicles for hire, do not apply to rideshare’s tech-based business and operating models that do not include central dispatch operations. Stipulations once considered imperative to protect the interests of long-standing private transportation companies are now arbitrary barriers, slowly being removed because of the evolving transportation market.
“There are traditional companies that are adamantly opposed to changes because it protects their industry,” said San Antonio Police Department Assistant Director Steven Baum after Council’s meeting. These companies have allowed and encouraged over-regulation. “It’s a struggle to balance between the historical companies and the new technology.”
This is the second wave of changes since rideshare came to San Antonio, Baum said, and there are more to come.
“There’s some archaic stuff that’s still in (the code),” he said. Some companies are still required, for instance, to have a limousine in their fleet – even if they don’t use it. “There’s a lot of barriers for new companies coming in.
“It’s a slow, very slow, (process) to move traditional companies from a very stringent regulatory environment, which they’re used to, to not-so regulated, which the TNCs desire to operate in.”
The arrival of rideshare companies, or transportation network companies (TNCs) as they’re referred to in the ordinance, to the San Antonio market almost two years ago had law enforcement and local lawmakers scrambling to figure out how to regulate them. Cities everywhere have faced similar circumstances where tech innovations have disrupted traditional markets, threatened established monopolies, and required local governments to bring regulatory controls into the current century.
Under pressure from the highly regulated, traditional vehicle-for-hire industry that demanded enforcement of existing regulations at the time without any changes, City Council passed an ordinance that was widely seen as protecting a legacy monopoly and discouraging free market innovation. Under concurrent pressure from a community that had already been using and enjoying rideshare, the implementation of the new rules were put on hold for Council to revise it, but it wasn’t enough to keep rideshare in town.
Pilot agreements were approved in 2015 to get rideshare companies operating again under somewhat experimental requirements, most notably the optional fingerprint background check. The one-year review of the pilot agreements, which are made with each rideshare company, will like take place in June, City staff said.
Today San Antonio has four rideshare companies: Lyft, Uber, Get Me, and Bid My Ride.
Before that review, two town halls will be scheduled before and after Fiesta to gather community and industry stakeholders for their input on how the rideshare experiment is fairing.
The frustrating part, Baum said, is that Lyft and Uber, the most widely used apps, have so far refused to release the number of drivers, passengers, or other trip data. While the City collects ample data on the traditional private transportation industry, the town hall meetings will have to rely largely on anecdotal evidence where rideshare is concerned.
The biggest bones of contention has been fees and background checks when it comes to the rideshare debate. Taxis are required to pay permitting fees per vehicle, $30 every four years, and airport fee $150. The permit fee covers the City’s cost of issuing permits and keeping track of operations and compliance.
“It’s not a money-making deal, it’s break-even (for the City),” Baum said. “Until they’re willing to take on some of the work, we can’t reduce the fees.”
Rideshare companies pay a flat, annual fee according to how many drivers are using their system. For instance, those with 1-10 drivers pay $625, companies with more than 300 drivers (independent contractors) like Lyft and Uber, pay $25,000.
Taxis also have the added bonus of dedicated taxi stands at major hotels and the airport, including a staging lot with exclusive access to an air-conditioned break room of sorts with a bathroom, Baum said. “The TNCs don’t have use of that.”
While Lyft and Uber use a third-party company that uses a driver’s name and social security number to perform background checks, it does not require the more time-consuming process of fingerprinting that other vehicle for hire drivers need to take with the San Antonio Police Department. About 90 rideshare drivers have taken and passed the additional background check, Baum said.
“What the community wants is what drives the ordinances,” he added.
If the community is okay with the third-party background checks and how the TNCs have operated, “then that’s the message that needs to come out of these town hall meetings,” he said. “If the other message is, ‘I’m a little concerned about who my wife gets into a car with, sometimes I’m not so sure who they are and if something happens, where am I left?’ Then that needs to come back, too.”
But again, that feedback will be anecdotal, Baum said. “I don’t have any hard data.”
Then again, City Council has repeatedly brought up the priority of public safety. Even if the community says they don’t mind if rideshare drivers aren’t fingerprinted, the Council could decide it knows better.
Councilman Joe Krier (D9) said passing changes like these help “level the playing field” for the traditional companies to compete with the relaxed regulations that rideshare companies enjoy.
“I would like to see substantial additional deregulation,” Krier said.
After taking in analysis of available data and input from the town hall meetings, Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran (D3), who chairs the Council’s Criminal Justice, Public Safety and Services Committee, “we are going to have a larger conversation” about fee structures, background checks, and permitting.
Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1) said the town halls will be “proactive and inclusive” and can help the City bureaucracy catch up to the fast-changing transportation world that technology has created.
Mayor Ivy Taylor echoed that sentiment.
“It’s kind of a moving target in a sense because the market is changing and evolving every day,” she said. “I feel confident that we’re taking the right approach.”
*Top image: Taxi file photo. Photo via Flickr user Emanuele.