There's just no pleasing San Francisco's taxi lobby, it seems.
After battling rideshare companies for months at the California Public Utilities Commission, local cab drivers launched a spirited protest outside City Hall last Tuesday, claiming the new apps are unfair, discriminatory, anti-competitive, under-insured, dangerous taxi clones — or "bandit cabs," as they're occasionally called in the business.
Later that day, the CPUC issued new proposed regulations that would effectively legalize the rideshare apps, which it rechristened "Transportation Network Companies," or TNCs. It said the apps have to behave just like taxis and make an effort to serve everyone equally — even people in wheelchairs, or people who live far away from the main downtown corridors, or people who, presumably, don't have smartphones and credit cards.
And still the taxis weren't happy.
The problem, some taxi drivers argue, is that the new rideshare apps have discrimination baked into their systems. They operate via smartphone and only accept credit cards, rather than cash payments. They don't own conventional fleets, and therefore aren't required to purchase a certain number of cars that are outfitted for wheelchair passengers. By definition, they aren't burdened with the same regulatory costs as taxis, says Matt Carrington, a spokesman for a taxi-only rideshare app called TaxiMagic, which contracts with Luxor Cab.
It's worth noting that TaxiMagic has its own promotional ax to grind. Proclaiming itself the original digital dispatch app in San Francisco, it began contracting with Luxor roughly a year before Uber entered the market, and it helped block legislation to create a centralized city dispatch which would have modernized the industry long before rideshare start-ups, including Uber, Lyft, and SideCar, took over. But Carrington brings up some valid points.
He calls the CPUC's recommendations "a step in the right direction," albeit a tentative one. Rideshare start-ups still have to decide, in a second phase of proceedings, how they're going to accommodate wheelchair passengers, and cab companies see that as a major sticking point. San Francisco taxis currently split up the hundred "ramp" medallions for wheelchair-accessible cabs — Luxor and DeSoto own the most — and each vehicle costs nearly double that of a regular sedan or SUV. To truly level the playing field, rideshare companies would have to foot the same bill, Carrington says.
"When you're a new entrant in the market, you don't have to worry about serving that population," he says. "And that puts you at a competitive advantage."
He also urged the CPUC to adopt a "universal access clause" that would force rideshare companies to serve all populations of San Francisco. Taxi companies do that already because all callers end up in the same dispatch queue. If they play by the rules, then Yellow and Luxor can't just flood parts of the city where people have higher disposable income — they have to go wherever a dispatcher sends them.
And while Carrington and other taxi industry spokesmen applaud the CPUC for insisting on a complaint system on rideshare companies, they aren't convinced that system will be as rigorous, or punitive, as the one that the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency currently exacts on cab companies. Angry riders registered 1,733 complaints through the city's "311" complaint line between 2011 and 2012, which caused a public outcry. Taxis want to make sure their rideshare competitors are given the same scrutiny.
It turns out Carrington has a friend in the SFMTA, whose director of taxis and accessible services, Christiane Hayashi, insists that there's no way for rideshare start-ups to properly serve people in wheelchairs. No driver-for-hire would ever take the liberty of purchasing his own wheelchair accessible vehicle, she says, because they're too expensive, and the weight of the ramp causes them to break down easily. That's not to mention that wheelchair accessible cars regularly require transmission, motor mount, rear axle, and flooring replacements, especially on San Francisco's hills, she explains.
Since limos aren't required to serve disabled people either, taxis have long shouldered the burden of door-to-door, on-demand wheelchair service in San Francisco, she writes in an e-mail.
"The fact that an unlimited number of new CPUC vehicles will be allowed to compete with taxi drivers for all of the good business means that taxis, more and more, will be left with the 'loss-leader' work of supplying paratransit and wheelchair service to the poor, elderly, and disabled, while the profitable work goes to others," Hayashi writes, reiterating a critique that cab drivers have long lobbed at the rideshare industry.
SideCar spokeswoman Margaret Ryan counters that her company has taken steps to help certain populations with disabilities — namely the visually impaired — and that it has incorporated feedback from low-vision app testers. She said SideCar gets plaudits from customers who say it's available in parts of the city where cabs are scarce.
Spokespeople from Lyft and Uber have yet to comment, but a CPUC spokesman says rideshare companies will keep discussing disability accommodations in subsequent hearings.