Just a week away from a vote on whether to basically extend the city's truce with rideshare companies (a "voluntary" fingerprint-based background check program that a lot of riders don't even seem to be aware of), San Antonio City Council members still appear to be split on the issue.
City staffers shared their latest recommendations on how the city should regulate companies like Uber and Lyft — and adjust the rules for already regulated taxi and limo companies — at a packed council session this afternoon. The changes from the last update in October were minimal, but seemed to seek a balance between the opponents and supporters of the current temporary rideshare plan.
While the city still suggests that “10-print” fingerprint background checks should be optional for rideshare drivers, it did loosen restrictions on taxi drivers in hopes of “leveling the playing field.” These rideshare apps currently have their own background checks in place, but they’re less rigorous than 10-print checks taxi drivers already have to comply with — and what some city council members think should be mandatory for everyone.
Under the new proposal, drivers would be allowed to place advertisements on the outside of their cab, ditch the dress code (slacks and a button-up shirt), update their electronic meter, and increase rates when picking up passengers from major event spaces, like the Alamodome.
District 6 Councilman Ray Lopez called these additions “carrots” — used to distract the council from the unsolved problem.
“I don’t understand how I can be clearer about this. I’m still concerned about the public’s safety without background checks. Ten-print fingerprinting should be mandatory,” Lopez said. Currently, rideshare apps in the city must indicate whether or not a driver took a 10-print background check — but it seems few riders actually know how to find the information, or that the background check-optional system even exists.
"The day something bad happens, and it will happen, the person or their family will wish they had known to click the button,” Lopez said, referring to the rider’s option to deselect a ride with a driver who didn’t get fingerprinted.
Mayor Ivy Taylor, who co-hosted an event to promote the new rideshare plan Tuesday night, predictably applauded the recommendation, which she calls a “consumer choice model.” District 3 Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran, however, doesn’t see it that way.
“The consumer and the driver don’t know the choices they have,” Viagran said. “There’s no ‘consumer choice’ here.” Viagran, like Lopez, believes transparency about drivers’ criminal background is critical. If the current plan goes into effect, she said, rideshare users should at least see some kind of pop-up window in the app warning them that not all drivers have been through a fingerprint check.
Plus: Uber and Lyft have been resistant to share many stats on their local operations with the city, leaving staff without any real idea of how much the industry’s grown in the past few years.
“So, to clarify, we have no clue how many [rideshare] drivers are working in the city?" Viagran asked Steven Baum, assistant director of the San Antonio Police Department.
“Yes, that’s correct,” Baum replied.
District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg, on the other hand, asked Baum why the plan’s 1-year contract couldn’t be extended for a longer period of time. “I think we’ve done a great job here. I’d say ‘just do it’,” he said.
Nirenberg pointed out that when people choose to use a rideshare app, they choose to trust the background checks the company already has in place. In essence, it’s not the city’s responsibility to regulate private companies that customers voluntarily decide to use.
Instead, he said, the city should be focusing on the dramatic impact rideshare companies have had on city drunk driving rates. SAPD Chief William McManus shared data with the council that showed a steep decrease in DUI arrests following Uber and Lyft’s 2014 introduction to San Antonio.
“We’re over-extending ourselves to go after something that isn’t really an issue,” Nirenberg said.