Mustache Disguise Kit: Rideshare Vehicles Move Undetected Through the City

Last Thursday, a Lyft driver squired two women to a Mission District dive, violating at least three rules in the process. "You guys care if I keep this in the back seat?" he asked, dangling the telltale pink mustache that's supposed to hang from the grille of every Lyft car. Other violations included driving straight ahead from a right-hand turn lane, or when he forgot to fist-bump the passengers, disregarding what local legend says is a mandatory company salutation.

The nightmare scenario that San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency officials keep portending — most recently in an Aug. 19 filing with the California Public Utilities Commission — had indeed come to pass. A rogue driver-for-hire had broken traffic laws and Lyft policies, hiding the identifiable trade dress of the company. Had the driver gotten in an accident, he could have pretended to be a regular person rather than a commercial passenger-carrier, SFMTA officials say. The removable mustache in his backseat would make it easy to commit insurance fraud.

But that's only one in a litany of fears that the SFMTA presented, two weeks shy of the Sept. 5 date to codify rules for rideshare enterprises (now called Transportation Network Companies). Many of the agency's concerns toward rideshare companies have to do with safety: instituting annual inspections, and setting age and mileage caps for their vehicles. Rideshares don't have to gather fingerprints or criminal histories from their drivers. They say they have excess liability insurance that kicks in when a driver's personal insurance doesn't cover commercial use of a vehicle, though SFMTA officials remain skeptical. And most of these start-ups use rating systems that provide drivers and passengers with the luxury of discriminating against each other.

With secrecy and selectivity in their systems, rideshares have little incentive to serve the public interest, SFMTA director Edward Reiskin writes in the filing. He and other transit authorities believe that these companies won't co-exist peacefully with taxis until both groups are held to the same standards. That could mean forcing Lyft drivers to paint pink mustaches on their cars. It could also mean requiring every driver-for-hire to keep a copy of the excess liability policy in the glove compartment. It would definitely mean killing the rating systems, which render anti-discrimination laws illusory.

Yet even those proposed amendments won't level the playing field. Because start-ups are regulated by the state, rather than by individual cities, they're not burdened by municipal boundaries. A taxi driver taking someone from San Francisco to Oakland can't pick up a hail on the way back; a Lyft driver can. To SFMTA Director of Taxis and Accessible Services Christiane Hayashi, that disparity alone makes the whole system unfair.

"Whether or not you put a moral overlay on it," she writes, "the hard economic fact is that it is driving the professional drivers out of the industry."

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The drivers and passengers in these ridesharing systems are identified/tracked electronically via their smartphones.  Whether or not they are displaying their corporate logo is likely irrelevant when it comes to insurance/liability.  I am guessing some drivers don't put up their physically identifying logos because there have been instances where taxi drivers have harassed or beaten up drivers in ridesharing services.  But as a passenger, it doesn't really make much of a difference to me whether they put up their logo because I'm relying on my smartphone to identify them.

Also, as a long time SF resident, I have had some awful taxi drivers, including some that have run up the meter assuming I am a non-resident and some that have made some very crude remarks.  I have never had these sorts of problems with the ridesharing services and my experience with them has almost universally been positive.  In fact, there is no meter under the control of the driver to run up with the ridesharing services since everything is precalculated, and a rating system ensures that these drivers are on their best behavior.  If the taxi companies weren't so greedy with the number of medallions and there were actually enough cabs to go around during peak hours, and if they improved their customer service and modernized their dispatch systems, then perhaps these ridesharing services wouldn't be quite as successful as they are.


I find it hypocritical that SFMTA is concerned about Lyft drivers breaking traffic laws when the worst drivers in SF are MUNI bus drivers and cabbies.   Maybe they should direct their resources to better driving tests for their own staff before branching out into private industry's practices.


I am not totally clear on how rating drivers violates anti-discrimination laws -- how is this different from Yelp reviews of, say, dog-walkers?

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