With the city’s fragile, temporary contract with rideshare companies weeks from expiration, city council members appeared eager Wednesday to hear the police department’s new proposal for citywide transportation rules. The San Antonio Police Department, working with the city manager’s office, had been tasked with crafting a new contract with the rideshares (or, transportation network companies, TNCs, in council-speak) and rewriting the city’s dated ordinance on “vehicles for hire.”
But nearly three hours after the afternoon council session began, city council members and transportation advocates appeared underwhelmed by the vague—and familiar—suggestions made by SAPD Assistant Director Steve Baum.
“I thought we were going to have a robust effort to know who’s driving these cars,” said District 9 Councilman Joe Krier.
Krier, with at least four other council members, said their concerns were largely unchanged since the last regulation discussion in June. Most asked that the city make all rideshare drivers go through a FBI background check, since it’s clear the current contract's voluntary check hasn't convinced many to sign up.
“Is there any way we can get 100 percent involvement in background checks?” Asked District 10 Councilman Mike Gallagher. “Or, in the meantime, we need something on the app that can warn users that ‘you have a bad guy picking you up’.”
Uber has been especially resistant to cities’ requests to run fingerprint background checks on their drivers, claiming that their private second-party background check program is far more stringent than the FBI’s. This is the main reason Uber fled Austin earlier this year.
But many say Uber’s checks ignore aliases and any crime committed more than seven years ago—hiding charges for drunk driving, assault, and even murder. Plus, they completely ignore any crimes committed in a handful of states. The system’s downfall was underscored in the case of a Houston Uber driver accused of sexually assaulting a passenger last year. The FBI background check would have found the driver’s 14-year stint in prison for drug charges, and quickly bar him from obtaining the necessary taxi permit. Uber’s program, however, missed the charge.
Houston has since mandated FBI checks for all rideshare drivers. Of course, Uber is threatening a dramatic exit.
Despite San Antonio council members’ months-old request for hard data on rideshare in the city, Baum said that he only had numbers of how many trips Lyft and Uber conducted over the year to and from the airport—he couldn't say how many drivers the companies employ. While the city has a cap on the number of working taxicabs, the number of rideshare cars allowed on the road is limitless. District 3 Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran put it simply: “I think that does a disservice to all of San Antonio.”
The only substantial suggestion made by Baum was to require both taxis and rideshare cars be charged with identical fees ($1.50) to pick up a passenger at the airport. It could be a sign that SAPD is still tangled in negotiations with the Uber and Lyft—waiting for their stamp of approval before sharing specifics.
San Antonio’s relationship with rideshares has been particularly rocky—joining a growing list of other cities who’ve battled TNCs after they elbowed their way into the local market. Uber and Lyft, the country’s rideshare pioneers, both arrived in San Antonio in early 2014. But the city’s attempt to stick these companies with stricter regulations prompted both of them to drop their San Antonio service just over a year later.
Rattled by the loss of rideshare, one of the more reliable forms of transportation in the sprawling city, city council scrambled to lure the companies back. That meant backpedalling on regulatory standards they were originally sworn to—sparking upset among taxi drivers and citizens who expected the city to be less of a pushover. Regardless, both Lyft and Uber returned to San Antonio last October, after the council relaxed background-check regulations in a pilot program.
Over the past year, reports of sexual abuse and trespassing by Uber drivers made headlines— and local newspapers’ requests for basic driver data from both Uber and Lyft sparked multiple lawsuits from the companies.
Baum’s suggestions came after SAPD met with the city’s Transportation Advisory Board last week, where members proposed changes to the current rules regarding taxi regulation, in hopes of “leveling the playing field” with the loosely-regulated rideshare apps. The transportation board's most forward-thinking ideas—that taxis could transition to a smartphone fare-collection app and have temporary price surges, like Uber—seemed to trouble Baum the most.
“How would taxis communicate flex rates to consumers?” he asked. “We don’t want people making street negotiations" – because that never happens with taxis or anything.
Councilwoman Viagran pointed out that it shouldn’t be any different from how rideshare apps work. In fact, one local cab company has already put this plan in motion. Last week, the parent company of Yellow Cab San Antonio unveiled a ride-hailing app similar to Uber or Lyft. But unlike the transportation board's request, it doesn’t come with surge pricing,
Baum did present one chunk of significant data that compared the number of trips taxis and rideshare vehicles made to the airport in the past year. The findings: As rideshare trips rose during the summer, taxi rides dipped. By September, however, taxi trips returned to their original numbers—despite a consistent rise in rideshare trips. Baum said this shows that these apps are not taking business away from the long-established taxi companies.
“That’s completely false,” said Robert Gonzales, owner of National Cab and taxi driver of 36 years. "We’re working up to 17 hours a day to keep up with their driver’s part-time jobs.”
Gonzales attended the council session with a group local taxi drivers, tired of the city’s inability to allow them the same rights as rideshare drivers.
“All we ask for is a little bit of justice,” said Alberto Flores, who’s driven a cab for 23 years. “The lobbyists, the companies, they can put food on their table at night. They can take relaxing breaks. We cannot.”
The council is expected to vote on the final rendition of the proposed regulations sometime next month.
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