Tuesday night, around a hundred people packed Burleson Yard to attend what appeared to be a combination tech happy hour and city press conference on a particularly hot-button issue: The future of rideshare apps in San Antonio.
“The customers have spoken,” said Lew Moorman, a founding member of Tech Bloc, the tech advocacy organization that hosted the event. “And what they want is rideshare. We have to meet customers where they are.”
The evening event was initially marketed as a rally, meant to foster support of the city’s continued partnership with top rideshare apps Uber and Lyft. And it comes at a pivotal moment. After months of debate over this contentious relationship, the city council will make a final vote on rideshare regulations on December 8.
The council has been consistently split on the decision, but both sides say safety is their main concern. For some, the apps refusal to make drivers participate in a free, fingerprint-based background check is suspicious, especially with rising cases of sexual assaults and stalking linked to Texas Uber drivers. For others, supporting rideshare means greatly decreasing the number of drunk drivers on San Antonio’s streets.
Not everyone came to Burleson with a concrete stance on the decision.
“I just came to see what all the fuss was about,” said Anthony Pottenbaum, a former commercial truck driver. “I always just call a taxi when I need a ride. I don’t know a lot about these apps, especially why we need them.”
San Antonio City Manager Sheryl Sculley used the event as a moment to preview the recommendation she will make to city council at a Wednesday meeting, prior to next week's council vote. “Overwhelmingly, the city wants to continue its current rideshare program. That’s what city staff will recommend to the council,” she said, wearing Tech Bloc’s blue “Keep Ride Share SA” shirt.
The current program follows what city staffers call a “consumer choice model” — where the rider can decide whether or not they want to drive with someone who has opted to get a FBI fingerprint background check. This type of driver background check is mandatory for all other city transportation services, including taxis, buses, limos — even pedicabs.
Uber and Lyft, however, have repeatedly refused the city’s request to make their drivers comply. That's the reason the two companies initially left San Antonio in 2014, only to return when Mayor Ivy Taylor promised them it would be a voluntary option. The two companies left Austin earlier this year after failing to comply with a more rigorous mandatory background check. And it seems Uber has only remained in Houston, where fingerprint checks are mandatory, because the city's cut drivers licensing costs in half.
While these rideshare companies do have their own type of background check, it doesn’t involve a fingerprint check — something that could catch criminals who’ve changed their name. In Houston, a driver who passed Uber's background check was accused of sexually assaulting a passenger last year. A fingerprint check discovered that the driver had spent 14 years in federal prison.
"From the statistics I've seen, I do not believe that the riders are as concerned with drivers having fingerprints as some of us elected officials have been," Mayor Ivy Taylor told the crowd.
Rideshare companies, however, have yet to share substantial statistics with the city — a point of contention within city council. And few rideshare users know they even have this choice, let alone that Uber and Lyft’s drivers aren’t required to pass a more rigorous background check.
“I’ve heard you can check, but I have no idea where or how,” said a woman at the event, who asked to not be identified. “They’ve definitely made it hard to find.”
A rider can only see if a driver has opted into the background check after they request a ride, meaning it’s up to them to cancel the ride after the driver knows their location and phone number.
Moorman called this feature a “great success,” but admitted he had never used it before, and isn't sure exactly how it works. “But the numbers show the safety measures are working really well,” he added.
Jenevy Sims, a frequent Uber rider who stopped by the event, said she’s never seen the background check feature, but that she’s never felt unsafe in a rideshare car. “I’ve never been concerned. I’ve never met anyone rude, or sketchy, driving a car,” Sims said. “This is a city of really friendly people.”
Since rideshare returned to San Antonio in October 2015, San Antonio police have investigated at least four cases of inappropriate sexual harassment and advances from local rideshare drivers — working for both Uber and Lyft. But rideshare supporters say the numbers of lives saved by cutting back on drunk driving outweigh the complaints.
“The focus should be about sober drivers,” said Jason Derscheid, the South Texas director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “DUI arrests have plummeted after Uber and Lyft came to the city. It’s saving lives.”
The city meanwhile says that keeping rideshare in San Antonio will bump tourism up and unemployment down. Taylor ended the night with a plea to the cheering audience: “Promise me that you’ll contact your council member, tell them why this is important. Send an email, place a phone call to your council member. Make your voices heard."