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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