Cab Stand-Off: Rideshare Start-Ups Have to Serve Everyone

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.

 
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6 comments
fajadadu
fajadadu

Lyft is greed disguised as an app...that steals from hard-working cabdrivers...to create another person with billions of dollars...They just call it something else like "peer to peer ride-sharing..." How about some "peer to peer law-enforcement...That means that as long as I wear a black mustache I can point a gun at people to enforce the law...same thing...If I wear pink eyebrows I can perform surgery...That's "peer to peer medicine" ...Or sell my homemade, no health inspection, peer to peer picnic food as long as I have green sunglasses...Get the drift? Park the food trucks outside busy restaurants because people shouldn't have to wait in line to eat...When you don't have to wait for a cab it's because it's the busy time...We don't need more cabs...We need more patience instead...

SFrider
SFrider

"[Matt Carrington of TaxiMagic] urged the CPUC to ... 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." Really? 

On my fourth call to SF's largest cab company to ask why no cab had shown up in the Richmond an hour after my scheduled pickup to take my cat and me to the vet in the Sunset, the dispatcher explained that "we can only ask them to do a pickup in the Richmond, we can't make them." When this happened the next time as well, I gave up on cabs outside downtown. Are the car sharing apps worse in this respect? How could they be?

laughtiger
laughtiger

"There's just no pleasing San Francisco's taxi lobby, it seems."

What kind of nonsense is this to start off with? For one thing, you give the impression the taxi drivers have a "lobby" of some kind, which is simply false. The faux-ridesharing companies, in contrast, do have lobbyists, and social media advertisers, etc., paid for with millions in venture capital. With which they have been seeding the press that they are fighting against an entrenched powerful "taxi lobby," which is basically BS. What they have been against from day one is regulation, in principle.

Ironically enough, since these corporations are on their way to becoming de facto taxi companies, they are themselves bringing this so-called "taxi lobby" into being, that new taxi lobby being they, themselves.

 Secondly, the idea that everyone should be served is not only -- or even inherently -- in the favor of taxi companies. Anti-profiling and anti-redlining regulations are the result of decades of experiences with service problems. The TNCs so far have not only resisted following by these hard-won rules, they actually build profiling into their systems -- which is bound to lead to abuse, if it hasn't already.  Getting the TNCs to play by the rules is in the public interest, not that of the "taxi lobby."

elizabet.kraft
elizabet.kraft

I'm not sure that these ride share cabs are safe. If there is an accident & the driver or passenger or both get hurt. Who is responsible? The passenger.. Taxi cabs are regulated by the city. Taxi drivers need a special drivers license to drive. There appears to be inequity between what the ride share cars need to do to drive in the city vs a cab driver must have to pick up passengers.

elizabet.kraft
elizabet.kraft

I didn't speak of death. I spoke of car accidents. Taxi's have car accidents every day. Not fatal accidents. Cab companies are regulated by a TCP state license & have commercial insurance. Cab Drivers have an A license different from our license to drive our personal car. Drivers who own their car pay $300,000.00 for a medalian to drive their own car from the company they work for, these Medalians are issued by the city. Why doesn't the ride share companies have to live under the same rules.

 
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