A lyft driver picks up a fellow "rideshare" or transportaiton network company (TNC) supporter after the City Council Public Safety Committee meeting May 7, 2014. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
A Lyft driver picks up a fellow "rideshare" or transportation network company (TNC) supporter after the City Council Public Safety Committee meeting May 7, 2014. Credit: Iris Dimmick / San Antonio Report

The public wins and business thrives when there is robust consumer choice. We have an opportunity to bring that kind of choice to San Antonio by embracing the emerging rideshare market. Our residents and visitors deserve safe, legal, competitive options in private transportation, so we should amend City Code Chapter 33 – the “Vehicle-for-Hire” Ordinance – in order to achieve it.

The City of San Antonio should adopt new transportation-for-hire policies that: 1) create a level playing field; 2) encourage competition; 3) ensure public safety and consumer protection; and 4) ensure access for all of our residents.

Competition, when everyone plays by the same rules, can increase quality of services rendered while decreasing costs. The Council can level the playing field using a variety of methods, including: eliminating caps on transportation-for-hire vehicles, removing or lowering barriers to entry into the marketplace, and eliminating or reducing the regulation of fares.

There have been legitimate public safety concerns cited in opposition to the transportation network companies (TNCs) that have complemented transportation options in cities throughout the world. While we cannot remove all public safety concerns associated with any service, including traditional taxis, we can fulfill our important responsibility to the public through insurance requirements and a permitting apparatus that applies to drivers and vehicles associated with any transportation-for-hire services. Driver background checks and drug tests and vehicle age and mileage requirements are among the good recommendations advanced by City staff and San Antonio Police Department.

In addition, access and nondiscrimination are values that this Council has embraced in a variety of contexts. Relatively simple code provisions can prohibit discrimination on the basis of geographic location and ensure Americans with Disabilities Act compliance.

Worldwide in the vehicle-for-hire industry, new TNCs – exemplified by Uber and Lyft – are changing the landscape, disrupting traditional ways of doing business and bringing unprecedented levels of service and consumer choice to the communities that embrace them. Local governments near and far are legislating good solutions for this new landscape (in Texas, count Houston and Dallas among them), creating a legal framework that protects consumers, ensures public safety, and improves service. In San Antonio, we can do the same, but not unless we are committed to making it happen.

Unfortunately, the prevailing position of representatives for the San Antonio taxi industry has been: “No changes to Chapter 33 to accommodate rideshares.” 

In May, City staff notified the Public Safety Committee that Chapter 33 would need to be amended to ensure public safety, access, and legal compliance of TNC operators. At that time, staff noted that the Transportation Advisory Board (TAB) and taxi industry would not agree to revising Chapter 33, effectively prohibiting TNCs from operating legally in San Antonio.  Nevertheless, a task force comprised of representatives from TAB, traditional transportation providers, and TNCs was convened to review policy alternatives.

In July, that task force disbanded without coming to a solution. City staff then proposed a series of options and recommendations, based on the success of other cities and public safety recommendations by SAPD, that would amend Chapter 33 and integrate TNCs into the City’s regulatory system. TAB unanimously rejected this proposal.

Meanwhile, San Antonio travelers have continued to seek and utilize these services at their own risk, in an unregulated, “gray market” environment. SAPD has enforced cease and desist orders, including fines and vehicle impoundments, as a policy solution continues to be delayed. SAPD is absolutely justified in their actions – they are charged with enforcing the law – but we are not excused from doing the work of policymakers to address changing market.

Earlier this month, the Public Safety Committee called for a second task force, similar to the first, to reconvene and recommend changes to Chapter 33. While it is important for the committee’s process to unfold, a high profile issue like this one also merits the full Council’s feedback in open session, especially when the debate reaches impasse as it has.

San Antonio residents and visitors deserve a competitive private transportation market with measures to ensure public safety, equal access, and consumer protection. The only way we can achieve this goal is to amend Chapter 33 promptly.

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Ron Nirenberg

Ron Nirenberg is the mayor of San Antonio.