SF exploring ways to regulate ride services like Uber, Lyft 

click to enlarge rideshare
  • Jeff Chiu/2013 S.F. EXAMINER file photo
  • As many as 4,000 rideshare vehicles are on San Francisco streets during peak times, according to Supervisor Eric Mar.
San Francisco city officials are exploring whether they have legal authority to regulate transportation services such as Uber or Lyft as the taxicab industry continues to complain about impacts to revenue, safety and disability services.

Supervisor John Avalos said Thursday that he is working with the City Attorney’s Office to explore a legal case for imposing certain local regulations.

“We’ve gotten to almost a crisis mode,” Avalos said. “We cannot let [the taxicab] industry fail.”

The so-called transportation network companies emerged out of a movement known as the sharing or peer economy, even though nothing is technically shared since the services cost money. Their growing popularity has created controversy, including with the traditional taxicab industry, which is held to stricter regulatory controls.

In 2013, the California Public Utilities Commission claimed jurisdiction over these kinds of companies that contract with drivers of personal vehicles to pick up riders using smartphone apps.

But six months after the state agency adopted regulations, members of the Board of Supervisors and transit officials are expressing concerns about the financial health of the taxi industry and safety on the streets. On New Year’s Eve, 6-year-old Sofia Liu was struck and killed by an Uber driver while she crossed at Polk and Ellis streets with her mother and brother, who were both injured but survived.

Some taxi drivers want The City to regulate the on-demand drivers like it regulates cabbies.

Mark Gruberg, a spokesman for United Taxicab Workers, said the CPUC’s rules don’t work.

“People are being injured while they are fiddling, and their rules do not protect the public,” Gruberg said. “These are taxicabs in every sense of the word.”

Christiane Hayashi, director of taxis for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, said there are concerns over insurance gaps, criminal background checks of drivers and vehicle inspections. But if she could pick only one new rule, it would be a limit on vehicles.

“There are so many vehicles competing for the business out there that it’s becoming quite dangerous,” she said.

Supervisor Eric Mar, who requested Thursday’s board committee hearing on companies like Uber, said cabdrivers “are losing about $15 per shift or even more” and estimated at peak times there are as many as 4,000 ride-service vehicles on the streets.

Part of the concern for Hayashi is the impact on the taxi industry’s service for people with disabilities. Taxi companies are returning medallions to The City as more drivers decide to work for the new industry, she said. That has reduced by more than half the number of wheelchair-accessible vehicles operating, from 1,400 a month to fewer than 600.

“We consider that a crisis of wheelchair transportation service,” Hayashi said. “Twenty-five percent of our 100 wheelchair-accessible taxis are not in service because the companies cannot afford to operate them.”

Marcia Zafar, director of policy for the CPUC, said the state agency has not completed the regulatory process. On Sept. 19, companies are required to submit more data, such as the number of rides requested and rides provided by ZIP code, the number of drivers suspended and the number of accidents.

“We are willing to revise it; we are willing to add to it,” Zafar said. “But you have to give us the opportunity to do it.”

Another complaint is that cabdrivers pay a $25 business permit and other city fees, while ride-service drivers pay nothing.

“There is nothing coming into The City in any way, shape or form for the use of our streets by these drivers,” Hayashi said.

Other cities are grappling with the same challenges. At least seven have prohibited companies like Uber and Lyft, including New York City; Portland, Ore.; and Philadelphia. At least eight cities are debating regulations. Last month, Seattle took a step forward in approving regulations to place a cap of 150 vehicles per company and institute a $50,000 permit application fee.

Uber is fighting the Seattle regulations.

In a statement about San Francisco’s Thursday hearing, the company said, "Safety is our priority and we look forward to continuing the conversation that we have already started with San Francisco Supervisors and their staff as well as with the TNC regulator, the California Public Utilities Commission."

Mayoral spokeswoman Christine Falvey said that Mayor Ed Lee “is encouraged by the CPUC’s recent rulings and regulation on the industry and we are continuing to monitor how those regulations address any public safety concerns.”

The mayor backs the industry because of “the opportunities it provides to a wide range of San Franciscans on the employment side and believes it is so successful because of the customer choice it also provides,” Falvey added.

Clarification: This article was updated on March 7, 2014. A previous version of this article truncated a statement from Uber about San Francisco possibly regulating ride-share services. The full comment is: "Safety is our priority and we look forward to continuing the conversation that we have already started with San Francisco Supervisors and their staff as well as with the TNC regulator, the California Public Utilities Commission."

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