The passionate debate about rideshare in San Antonio continued on Wednesday night during the last of two public feedback sessions before it’s brought before City Council in two weeks.
Many of the nearly 100 local residents and community stakeholders who attended the meeting said ride-booking platforms – be it Uber, Lyft, Get Me or Bid my Ride – are necessary and competitive transportation amenities for modern cities. Others cited public safety concerns and an uneven playing field for traditional vehicle for hire companies as cause to enact more strict laws for background checks.
Rideshare companies, or transportation network companies (TNCs), are operating under a nine-month pilot agreement with the City. Some have suggested that the City adopt the agreement’s terms as law. Others propose kicking rideshare companies out of San Antonio entirely. City Council will consider these ideas, information gathered from the so-called “rideshare roundtables,” and data collected by City staff during its B Session discussion on Wednesday, June 15 at 2 p.m.
Residents also are encouraged to participate in this online survey.
The pilot agreement, which will soon expire, gives rideshare drivers a choice when it comes to completing fingerprint background checks in addition to the third-party multi-district background check required by TNCs. Customers can then choose whether they want to ride with drivers that have not taken the fingerprint check.
“We feel that we’ve come up with a solution that works for San Antonio, but it was only a temporary solution, and that pilot program is coming to an end now,” Jeff Coyle, the City’s director of Government and Public Affairs, told attendees. “The reason we’re asking for your input here is to help guide the City Council with their decision on the future of rideshares in the city.”
The citizens that showed up on Wednesday had similar ideas to those who attended the previous roundtable discussion.
Taxis, limos, pedicabs, and other vehicles for hire must comply with a long list of regulations under Chapter 33 of the City’s municipal code, which has been criticized as outdated given the development of more transportation options and technology.
“(Overhauling the regulations) is only fair,” said Uber and Lyft driver Charles Phythian. “The old system should be amended to fit our current market needs and a happy medium needs to be found so that everything can be equal across the board.”
Local tech advocacy organization Tech Bloc is a key political player that supports implementing the pilot program as law and has been encouraging its individual and business members to demonstrate their support at the roundtables and to City Council.
Techstars Cloud Program Managing Director Blake Yeager said the majority of his discussion group on Wednesday believes that the pilot agreement is fine as it is.
“Some people at the table really felt like we needed to do our best to keep everything level … and others felt that you really need to look at these as two fundamentally different businesses,” he said. “They don’t necessarily need to be regulated the same way.”
But public safety has been the sticking point for many taxi drivers, City Council members, and community members. Without fingerprint background checks, how can riders be sure of who’s driving the car?
“All you have to do is Google ‘rideshare crimes,’” said National Cab owner Robert Gonzalez, referring to some national and international cases of assault or theft committed by rideshare drivers. There has not been any such cases reported in San Antonio. … We all should (agree to) these mandatory fingerprint background checks. (Taxi drivers) have been doing it for 20 years and we’ve cleaned up our industry and we’ve eliminated criminals from our industry.”
A Google search of “taxi driver” typically reveals similar headlines that describe crimes perpetrated by cab drivers. The which-is-safer debate is impassioned, but lacks the required metrics for a definitive answer.
Since the first roundtable in May, the number of TNC drivers who have applied for fingerprint background checks jumped from around 170 to 192, said Councilman Roberto Treviño (D1), who played a key role in crafting the City’s pilot agreement with the rideshare companies. That’s a good sign, he said, but, “the goal here is not to see whether or not we should incorporate background checks, the goal here is about how this pilot program, that’s about choice, will move us forward as a city.”
Carol Fisher, who claimed she is not associated with any rideshare or vehicle for hire company, struck a nerve with more than one person in the room when she said that rideshare is not only a violation of public safety and health, but is also discriminatory in nature.
“What you can see here is that the working class is represented by the cabs and the elitist, privileged are represented by Uber and Lyft,” she said, speaking over groans of disapproval from several audience members. “(Many of the elderly) don’t have credit cards, the working poor also don’t have credit cards, so this technology is built to satisfy a certain demographic.”
All the more reason to ease restrictions and fees for cab companies so they can continue to serve those populations, some have argued.
Uber and Lyft recently left Austin after voters rejected a measure to eliminate fingerprint background checks, but the city is not without other rideshare options. A group of Austin tech and community leaders recently collaborated to create RideAustin, an Austin-only ridesharing nonprofit, that will adhere by City ordinances and officially launch in mid-June.
Treviño said the emergence of new ridesharing initiatives and companies “is a good sign of how there’s a need (for rideshare),” but the city’s focus should be on how it’s working in San Antonio.
“I think that what’s happening in Austin is something that they have to address,” he said. “We’re also getting a lot of rideshare companies in San Antonio. We have four in the city right now and from my understanding we’re getting a fifth one, and this time last year we had zero. So, what works for Austin will work for Austin, but I think what we have here in San Antonio is working for San Antonio, and we’re proud of that.”
Top image: Nearly 100 residents and community stakeholders shared their insights on the rideshare debate at the City-hosted rideshare roundtable. Photo by Camille Garcia.