I was too slow crossing Travis Street on the way from City Hall to my office at the Weston Centre Wednesday. The Yellow Cab van driver whipped his vehicle into a right hand turn off Soledad Street and by me as I started to enter the crosswalk. I retreated quickly as the driver smiled and waved an apology as he sped onward.
In the developing world, such aggressive, opportunistic driving is the norm, and as someone who once lived and worked in the Third World, I knew what he was communicating with his wave and smile: Sorry, mister, survival of the fittest.
San Antonio, however, isn’t the Third World. Many of us are eager to see the end of the Yellow Cab monopoly because we want more customer-friendly transportation here.
I no longer travel frequently on business, but when I did, the late-night taxi ride home often was the most excruciating part of the trip. I appreciate the reality that driving a cab, here or anywhere, can be a toehold job for immigrants, a way for the hardest-working individuals to feed their families and start the climb up the economic ladder.
But sitting in the back seat of a vehicle speeding recklessly through the city with the radio blasting the driver’s favorite music or while the driver engages in a loud, non-stop cellphone conversation was not my idea of a homecoming. I never hesitated to ask the driver to slow down, turn down the music, or get off the phone. Such requests were met with iciness. Who wants to pay a stranger to sit in his car for that?
Two weeks ago, an Uber driver picked me up less than two minutes after I “called him” on my smartphone with a tap of my right thumb. He was considerably older than the Millennial drivers I had encountered on Uber rides in the last few months — an observation I shared with him.
“I quit Yellow Cab,” he told me, adding that he felt enslaved by a system where he paid the vehicle owner and City Medallion holder $80 a day plus gas for the right to drive. On slow days, he said, he could finish an average workday barely breaking even. “Overtime was my time,” he added, meaning the money he actually earned for himself and his family came after the first eight hours of work.
My point: Claims by District 3 City Councilmember Rebecca Viagran and San Antonio Police Chief Williams McManus that they are preventing Uber and Lyft rideshare services from operating in San Antonio to protect consumers come off as out of touch to those of us who actually use the services.
Taxi service has always left a lot to desire in a city that lacked the density to make cabs easy to find or quick to respond. Uber and Lyft have proven to be refreshing alternatives that offer timely, affordable, friendly service in clean vehicles with drivers who are insured, obey traffic laws, and have passed background checks. The technology has eliminated the guesswork: Will my ride ever get here?
The free market has spoken, and despite a few arrests, impoundments and public rhetoric about people breaking the law, the services are thriving here and changing the urban core landscape for the better.
How? For starters, I consistently hear anecdotes from Baby Boomers and Millennials alike who use Uber and Lyft for their rides to and from evenings on the town rather than use their own personal vehicle and risk driving drunk.
“It’s a no brainer,” said the partner of a local attorney. “Why risk thousands of dollars in legal expenses and getting arrested and booked into jail when you can pull out your phone and get home without a worry?”
There’s where law enforcement resistance to rideshare befuddles me. San Antonio has the highest rate of driving while intoxicated in Texas, which has the highest rate in the nation. Forty percent of the city’s DWI arrests are repeat offenders. Why wouldn’t we embrace a transportation option that reduces dangerous behavior?
There’s another way Uber and Lyft are changing the city. In an economy that has kicked many educated young people to the curb, rideshare represents a good-paying, part-time job where the driver makes his or her own hours. I know young Uber drivers who hold professional jobs that pay inadequate wages who are earning $100 a night driving for a rideshare service.
The technology allows Uber or Lyft, which provide enabled smartphones to drivers, to remotely track and bill customer’s credit cards for every ride. A receipt arrives by email before your foot hits the driveway, and a Yelp-style, mutual ranking system allows driver and riders to grade one another. Riders or drivers who don’t play by the rules don’t last long in the rideshare world.
The free market has come close to perfecting the system. It’s time for local government to catch up. District 8 Councilmember Ron Nirenberg called for reconsideration of the issue in an op-ed published on the Rivard Report Thursday. He and District 1 Councilmember Diego Bernal, who also supports a rideshare option, are being blocked by Councilmember Viagran, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, which has jurisdiction on the matter.
In her role as committee chair, Viagran has made two key missteps, in each instance ignoring facts and responding to emotion. The first was her initiative to remove bike lanes from South Flores Street, an action that was taken without a shred of evidence that the lanes somehow posed a danger to residents or school children, as citizens opposed to change asserted. Then-Mayor Julián Castro went along with the backwards vote even as he rhetorically questioned why the City was moving backward on such a progressive issue.
Now Viagran wants to appease the taxi cab mob in their matching T-shirts and placards filling Council chambers, expertly stage-managed by their nearby handlers.
This is a test for Mayor Ivy Taylor. Protocol dictates that she defer to the council member with jurisdiction, which means Viagran. Some credit Viagran as the behind-the-scenes council member who propelled Taylor into her candidacy for interim mayor, so there is a relationship there not evident to voters.
Protocol, however, is not sacred. Protocol used to dictate that a departing council member hand-pick his or her successor. Scandal changed that tradition, and now the full Council vets candidates and makes the choice. The moment for such change has come again. It’s time for City Council to lead on the issue rather than hold back a city that too often fears change.
*Featured/top image: From left: Lorenzo Gomez III, Julie Campbell, Lyft Launch Director Will Farino, Kara Gomez and Ryan Salts welcome Lyft to Geekdom. Photo courtesy of Geekdom.