N.Y.C. -Style Uber Crackdown Won’t Come to S.F. Anytime Soon

The landmark regulations for rideshare companies represent an interesting model, but in California, such power sits with the court of state regulators.

Sarahbeth Maney/Special to S.F. Examiner

Part of California and New York State’s friendly bicoastal rivalry is a jockeying to lead the nation in firsts, from banning plastic straws to filing lawsuits against the Trump administration.

But when it comes to regulating rideshare companies, California is in no hurry to catch up. Earlier this month, New York became the first city in the nation to freeze licenses beyond the estimated 100,000 Uber and Lyft vehicles currently allowed on its roads.

In its new package of laws on rideshare companies, New York’s City Council also required a minimum wage for drivers, and mandated that the companies report details about every trip, including total cost, driver earnings, and duration.

The crackdown comes nearly a decade after Uber exploded onto the transportation scene and as other cities have started to flex their authority.

“No longer will the City of New York stand by idly while unfettered growth in the for-hire sector causes ever-worsening traffic congestion, ever-rising environmental degrading, and ever-deepening human suffering,” Council Member Ritchie Torres said before the vote.

Honolulu, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. have opted to impose taxes and fees on rideshare operations, while London revoked Uber’s operating license outright in September. After the company admitted it made mistakes and upgraded safety policies, London officials provisionally reinstated the license this summer for a 15-month period, instead of a regular five-year license.

In the U.S., New York has raised the bar on imposing limitations on private ride-hail vehicles, but any San Franciscan hoping their city may reciprocate will be sorely disappointed. The authority to regulate rideshare companies rests with the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), which reiterated to SF Weekly that a vehicle cap and driver pay rules are not included in its open transportation proceeding — the formal process that weighs requests related to an industry it regulates.

“However, the CPUC continues to explore a range of important consumer protection regulations in the proceeding,” spokesperson Terrie Prosper says.

The CPUC last established major rules around Uber and Lyft in September 2013, covering basics like driver training, criminal background checks, obtaining an operating license, and car inspections.

But officials have expressed frustration with the limited authority on rideshare vehicles. In January 2017, SFMTA Director of Transportation Ed Reiskin spoke candidly about 26 legal briefings submitted to the CPUC that requested higher safety standards from rideshare companies — and which seem to have fallen on mostly deaf ears.

“They said they would never be in the transportation business, they were just a software platform,” Reiskin told the SFMTA Board of Directors at the time. “I have to say frustratingly very little of what we’re requesting in those 26 filings has been implemented by the CPUC.”

With the threat of a November ballot measure that would have forced a tax on rideshare companies, Uber and Lyft could clearly sense that San Francisco’s patience was wearing thin. After months of negotiations with Supervisor Aaron Peskin’s office, the companies agreed to a rare compromise that taxes each ride in the city and puts the funds back toward transportation infrastructure, in exchange for the measure being taken off the ballot.

In a statement provided to SF Weekly, Uber expressed worry that New York’s new laws will affect the city’s mobility, while Lyft said they would “be even more harmful elsewhere.” Fortunately for them, San Francisco is limited to a 3.25-percent tax on single-passenger rides, and a 1.5-percent tax on shared rides, and the San Francisco City Attorney’s Office issuing subpoenas to obtain the companies’ data.

“Unlike New York City, TNCs are currently regulated by the state of California, which makes it difficult for San Francisco to regulate the industry,” Mayor London Breed’s office tells SF Weekly. The per-ride fee, at least, is a clear priority San Francisco can achieve and “will generate much-needed money for transit, congestion reduction, and road repairs while focusing on the enforcement of traffic laws and better curb management.”

The tax would bring in about $30 million the first few years, and doesn’t head to voters until 2019. Even then, Uber and Lyft will be able to operate largely without check on San Francisco city streets.

Ida Mojadad is a staff writer at SF Weekly.
Imojadad@sfweekly.com |  @idamoj

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