A map of Uber coverage in San Antonio Texas. Courtesy image.
A map of Uber coverage in San Antonio Texas. Courtesy image.

It’s official. Rideshare has returned to San Antonio.

“Today Uber is excited to announce that we are returning to the streets of San Antonio, effective immediately,” stated Uber Spokesperson Debbee Hancock in an email Tuesday afternoon. “Thousands of drivers will be able to earn money in their own neighborhoods again. And tens of thousands of riders will have a safe alternative to drinking and driving with just the tap of a button. We are grateful for Mayor Taylor’s leadership and efforts to bring back Uber San Antonio.”

Uber has beaten its biggest competitor, Lyft, to the proverbial punch. City Council approved a nine-month operating agreement for a rideshare pilot program in August that requires ride-booking application companies to provide drivers with the option of taking a fingerprint background check and identifying this additional certification to riders. From there, the passenger can choose whether to cancel the ride and wait to find a driver that has taken the additional steps. The agreement does not technically require an update of their platforms or rider profile formats in order to achieve this notification. Uber has simply added a space next driver names to indicate that they’ve taken an additional City background check. Lyft representatives have said that they are working on how to make the background check notification option available to drivers.

The agreement does not require rideshare companies to advertise/bring any attention to the drivers’ status.

The responsibility to make riders and drivers aware of the feature lies on the City’s shoulders. And so it has already begun to launch its awareness campaign:

Image courtesy of COSA.
Image courtesy of COSA.
A screenshot/graphic of Uber's new profile feature that indicates a driver's added background check.
A screenshot/graphic of Uber’s new profile feature that indicates a driver’s additional background check. Image provided by COSA. Click to enlarge.

In Uber’s app, a seemingly arbitrary number appears beneath the driver’s headshot only if they’ve taken a fingerprint background check through the San Antonio Police Department. There is no in-app explanation of what that number means, but it’s a verification number assigned to each driver that has been fingerprinted.

“We look forward to evaluating the effectiveness of the pilot program and hope the newly hired rideshare drivers will agree to undergo the 10-print background check process,” stated Councilmember Mike Gallagher in a news release. “This will provide San Antonio residents greater peace of mind when choosing their transportation options.”

All drivers are required to go through Lyft and Uber’s third-party background check before picking up fares, which includes local and state databases.

Lyft has agreed to the terms but has not announced a start date for a San Antonio comeback.

Uber company representatives signed the exact same agreement with the City that Lyft has, said Deputy City Manager Erik Walsh.

“Uber’s re-launch in San Antonio sends a loud signal that this city is open for business,” stated Brad Parscale, co-founder of Tech Bloc and president of Giles-Parscale. “Uber is more than a convenient and affordable ride, it increases exploration of the city, reduces DWIs, and will help us attract top talent looking to move to a livable urban city. This is a small step that makes a large impact in our community.”

Parscale took the inaugural ride Tuesday as “Rider Zero,” according to Uber’s website.

Uber and Lyft closed up shop within City limits on April 1 despite revisions in the transportation network company (TNC) ordinance that relaxed some of the tougher provisions passed late last year. Lyft left the area completely while Uber drivers have since been legally picking up passengers only in suburban cities, such as Windcrest, Alamo Heights, Olmos Park and Hollywood Park. Until now.

The City debate on how to regulate rideshare companies, or TNCs, went on for months in the Council’s Public Safety Committee, executive sessions, citizens to be heard, and in Council chambers last year and then again early this year. Uber and Lyft representatives said in March that the insurance and background check requirements of the current ordinance remained too onerous. The taxi and limo industry praised the regulations, which contained fewer hoops for TNC drivers than taxi drivers – yet failed to stop rideshare companies from leaving town.

Councilmember Ron Nirenberg (D8) said in a statement that it’s time for San Antonio to revise Chapter 33 of the Municipal Code, the City’s vehicle-for-hire rules.

“We have to remove regulatory burdens for the entire industry and make San Antonio streets safe for commuters and truly competitive for business,” Nirenberg stated. “We still have much work to do to ensure our laws reflect a San Antonio that is ready for an evolving transportation landscape. Lack of transportation options causes congestion, costs jobs and makes San Antonio roads more dangerous.”

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article implied that the operating agreement required a technologic upgrade. The agreement does not go that far, merely stating: “A TNC shall provide its TNC operators the option to identify whether the TNC operator (1) has voluntarily undergone and passed a criminal background check as approved by the city; and (2)  is a military veteran or active member of the military…”  Download the agreement here.

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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