After an emotional and colorful Citizens to be Heard session, the City Council Public Safety Committee unanimously agreed to hold-off on sending a staff-recommended ordinance revision to City Council that would allow rideshare companies to operate in San Antonio. The committee unanimously passed a motion calling for a task force comprised of local stakeholders to continue research and discussion on developing rideshare regulation. 

The committee will take up the issue again in three months during November’s meeting. Traditional taxi and limo companies applauded the decision.

“It was beautiful, I almost wanted to jump and kiss all the council people that were here,” said local cab driver Cruz Chavira after the meeting Wednesday afternoon. “I’m glad that they’re taking their time with this. We felt they were being rushed and we couldn’t figure out why … just sit down and do the homework.”

This decision delays resolution to the hotly-debated presence of Lyft and Uber, which began operating in San Antonio in March.

“Do we have all the answers today? I don’t think so,” said San Antonio Police Department Assistant Director Steven Baum, who presented the staff recommendation and urged the Committee to allow the revision to go to City Council. “If we move forward and adopt (this) revision, we will be back and have to adjust again … if we keep pushing it down the road we will never find all the answers.”

Neither representative from Lyft nor Uber – rideshare companies that connect private drivers to riders via smart phone application – indicated any intention to stop operating illegally in San Antonio. Rideshare advocates left today’s meeting disappointed, but ultimately optimistic that accommodations will be made for TNCs in San Antonio’s transportation market.

“It’s always been our position that there is a legal and regulatory void as it pertains to transportation network companies and despite the City’s position there has never been a finding by any court of law as to whether Chapter 33 does apply to our operations,” said Lyft Director of Public Policy Joseph Okpaku after the meeting. “Driving on the Lyft system is always voluntary. It’s always up to the driver.”

Okpaku said he would continue to work with the task force to come to an agreement.

“We’ll be regrouping with the City to see what kind of additional people we can come up with (for the task force),” said San Antonio Police Department Chief William McManus, referring to District 3 Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran‘s call for perhaps an insurance representative and an American with Disabilities Act expert. “The rub for everybody is that Uber and Lyft continue to operate illegally. That to me is a major rub … it’s in violation of the City’s laws.”

The main points of concern among council members on the committee were the “exceptions” made on background checks, vehicle inspections, driver training, and insurance for rideshare, transportation network companies (TNCs). The proposed revision to the vehicle for hire ordinance, Chapter 33 of City Code, outlines standards that “are identical with the exception that the responsibility is on the TNC to ensure compliance,” said Baum. The City would then be responsible to hold the TNCs accountable by randomly inspecting and auditing drivers and their vehicles.

That didn’t sit well with a majority of members.

“Once you’re in the car, all that protection you have out in public is gone,” District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales said, recalling safety advice she was given after being held at gunpoint 10 years ago. “Until we can prove that (TNC drivers) are fully vetted and cleared … I’m not ready to move forward to full council.”

District 10 Councilman Mike Gallagher echoed these concerns, adding, “I will not support anything that puts the public at risk.”

Viagran called upon the SAPD to “be more diligent as we move forward with enforcement … I don’t understand why (TNCs) continue to operate – why can’t (the technology) just be taken off?

“San Antonio is not Houston,” Viagran continued, referring to a recently approved ordinance in Houston that was similar to the proposed local ordinance. “We want to make sure (regulation) is tailored to us.”

The Public Safety Committee is made up of  Viagran,  Gonzales, Gallagher, and District 9 Councilman Joe Krier. District 7 Councilman Cris Media is chair of the committee, but is currently on a leave of absence.

Rideshare advocates pose for a photo outside of City Council chambers. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
Rideshare advocates pose for a photo outside of City Council chambers. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

More than a dozen citizens spoke from each side of the room. Stage right, rideshare advocates wore bright pink T-shirts and carried pink mustaches – Lyft’s logo. Stage left, bright yellow T-shirts were worn by traditional vehicle for hire industry members.

Taxi and limo drivers spoke about the value of their industry’s current regulation which includes stipulations for accepting all forms of payment, 24/7 service availability and commercial insurance coverage, ADA compliant vehicles, and a flat fare rate. TNCs have no such requirements. 

John Boulabasis, who has become the traditional vehicle for hire industry’s unofficial spokesperson on the rideshare issue, said the “random audit system places the riding public at risk,” and that TNC vehicles and drivers should be “pre-inspected before they are allowed to operate.”

Rideshare advocates argue that the limitations on TNCs – no cash accepted, fluctuation of service hours, inability to pick up fares without the app or from airports – allow for the traditional industry to continue to serve those customers.

“It’s all about what the customers want,” said Larry Moore, one of the pink shirts that gathered outside City Council chambers before the meeting began. Moore has been a Lyft driver for about a month. “My personal insurance has nothing to do with it – Lyft has us covered.”

Both Lyft and Uber boast faster pick-up times and a more reliable mobile application. Some traditional vehicle for hire companies have their own mobile applications but they have reliability issues and struggle to compete with the 5-10 minute wait-times usually offered and delivered by the TNCs. 

*Featured/top image: Traditional taxi and limo industry members pose a photo outside City Council chambers. Photo by Iris Dimmick. 

Related Stories:

Rideshare Companies Unfazed by Unanimous Advisory Board Rejection

Lyft and Uber Still Illegal, Still Operating in San Antonio

Dear Chief McManus: Let’s Welcome Lyft to San Antonio

San Antonio’s Downtown Carshare Program Stalls

Online Petition Calls for Mayor Castro’s Support of Rideshare in San Antonio

Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and workforce development. Contact her at iris@sareport.org