The battle for curb space at San Francisco International Airport has become less intense after last summer’s tweaks to rideshare pickups, which sent passengers sharing rides from domestic terminals to the parking garage. But officials say it’s not enough, and starting next week, they’ll add domestic travelers taking a rideshare car by themselves to the same garage.
Starting June 5, SFO will require rideshare companies like Uber, Lyft, and Wingz to pick up passengers coming from the domestic terminal not at the curb, but at the hourly parking garage. The goal is to divert 45 percent of traffic from Transportation Network Companies, or TNCs, away from the roadway. According to SFO spokesperson Doug Yakel, about 70,000 TNC cars arrive at the airport each day.
This will add some extra time for travelers. For someone arriving on, say American Airlines at Terminal 2, the change would mean going up an escalator to the passenger skybridge as if they were headed to AirTran, and then cutting over to the fifth floor of the central garage. They would then get queued and matched up with their driver in what officials say would be a three-minute wait, instead of craning their necks to find their drivers in a sea of cars.
“We expect that this will actually make it easier for drivers and passengers to get paired up with one another,” Yakel said. “We know it’s a change, but we think once everyone gets comfortable with the new location, it’s going to be easier for drivers to get matched.”
Ride-share companies, on the other hand, don’t want the change. Lyft and Uber say they expect it will hurt wheelchair access, disrupt drivers who dropped off passengers from immediately being rematched for a pickup (“rematching”), cause longer wait times, and add congestion as more cars will be needed to meet demand. More cars also means more CO2 emissions, which Lyft has reduced by a third at SFO through rematching.
“Uber shares SFO’s goal of reducing vehicle miles traveled in the terminal,” an Uber spokesperson tells SF Weekly. “We want to work with the airport to reduce curbside congestion while preserving convenience for riders and drivers. We are concerned that moving all ride-share pick-ups to the garage could actually increase congestion while inconveniencing riders and lowering earnings for drivers.”
Uber Pool, Express Pool, and Lyft shared rides were first relocated in summer 2018, and the companies added $3 discounts to individual riders who were picked up in the same spot in March. But that only diverted about 21 percent of TNC traffic, Yakel said.
SFO’s goal of moving 45 percent of TNC activity away from the curb is to bring the flow of traffic to about 15 mph, up from an average of less than 10 mph speeds.
But some drivers are worried that it will just make the problem worse again. Rebecca Stack, a driver for both Uber and Lyft, recognized the improvement in congestion and felt it was more efficient to gather her passengers in one spot. Another driver, Orlando Miles, feels it’s working better the way it is now. Drivers don’t want traffic as much as anybody — after all, they get paid the same set fare when caught in gridlock.
“I thought that was a good compromise,” Stack said of last summer’s pickup change. “Now I just feel like they’re taking the original problem and moving it to the top of the garage.”
Further rule changes open drivers up to the risk of citations, with the concern that the next change will simply shift traffic from one place to the other.
Driver Orlando Miles, feels it’s working better the way it is now. He says he received a traffic citation in the fall but wasn’t aware of it until his license was suspended. Rather than contest it and lose out on time to earn money driving, he paid the $1,200 ticket.
“I really feel that the [change] is going to make traffic even more,” Miles said. “Everyone’s going to be going the same way.”
Keeping the pickups dispersed would help prevent traffic and confusion, said Miles and Stack. SFO, however, is sticking to the plan for now.
The airport change is the final straw for Miles, who started driving four years ago but doesn’t want the lower wages that come with being considered an independent contractor. Earlier this month, Uber drivers went on strike in several cities, including San Francisco, and weeks later the company sent out a petition against the new SFO pickup procedures for drivers to sign.
“The airport is not the major problem, but it is a problem,” Miles says. “I’m not protesting on Uber’s behalf. It’s getting ridiculous.”