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A bumpy ride for Lyft in San Antonio

Ride sharing service Lyft has made its move into San Antonio, where much like it did in Houston it is offering free rides while regulatory issues are negotiated. Unlike Houston, the official reception they got was distinctly unfriendly.

Less than a week after the ride-sharing service Lyft launched in San Antonio, the city’s police chief has told the company to cease operations because its drivers are not properly permitted.

San Antonio Police Chief William McManus said he sent “a very strongly worded cease and desist letter” to San Francisco-based Lyft on Wednesday. Company spokeswoman Katie Dally said the company had not received a letter as of Thursday morning.

The company, which launched in the Alamo City on Friday night, matches drivers with passengers looking for a ride via a smart phone app.

Lyft has been operating as Lyft Pioneer in San Antonio, meaning passengers will not be charged for now.

To get a ride, a Lyft user downloads the smartphone app, then receives a text message, which says passengers can get 50 free rides in San Antonio (worth up to $25 each) for the next 15 days.

Lyft drivers are not licensed taxi or limo drivers. The drivers who sign up to work for Lyft must undergo a criminal background and driving background check, said Erin Simpson, Lyft’s director of communication. They must also have their own car insurance policy, and Lyft’s insurance will cover them up to $1 million. Passengers can rate their drivers, and drivers can do the same with passengers.

But McManus said that’s not enough — they still aren’t allowed to provide a taxi-like service.

The story has gone national, as you might imagine. Lyft has had a few problems here in Houston as well, but nothing quite like that. They also have some supporters, including Mayor Julian Castro and Robert Rivard, who write his own letter to Chief McManus:

I don’t understand your out-of-character move to try and shut down Lyft, one of the coolest, most innovative transportation solutions to ever hit San Antonio. It’s only been operating here one week and it isn’t even charging its customers yet. I could hardly believe my ears when I heard you threatening to arrest Lyft drivers if they persist in their unlicensed, unsanctioned ride share activities. Didn’t you see the congratulatory launch message from our friends at Geekdom? These guys are for real. We are not their first city.

[…]

Chief, everyone I have spoken to this afternoon and evening wonders what motivated you to take such forceful action given your cool demeanor. Are the taxicab owners pressuring the City? In a city with too few transit choices, cabs too often are part of the problem. I don’t particularly blame the owners or drivers. In a city of sprawl, where cabbies come only when called or if you happen to be at a downtown hotel or the airport, supply and demand seldom balance the way they do in more densely populated urban areas.

We need creative solutions like Lyft to attack some of the very big transportation problems in this city which get little attention because only crisis motivates people to act: air quality that worsens by the year, and highways clogged with commuter traffic moving at a rush hour crawl in the only Texas city that has no form of light rail.

How are we going to make San Antonio a more walkable city, safer for cyclists and pedestrians, unless we start taking some of the vehicles off the road, most of which carry exactly one person: the driver?

How are we going to get people to stop climbing behind the wheel after they’ve had too much to drink in a city that celebrates drinking?

[…]

Texas has already allowed one entrenched lobby – the automobile dealers – to prevent Tesla vehicles from being sold directly to consumers. That short-sightedness could cost us the Tesla battery factory the company hopes to build here or in some other Sun Belt city and the 6,500 good paying jobs it would create.

Let’s take a step back and ask ourselves: What’s the simplest, quickest way to make sure these companies have figured out the public safety and security thing. Let’s allow Lyft to operate through a probationary period, and if all goes well, let them stay.

I don’t know what the regulatory environment is in San Antonio – you can see their taxi ordinances here, but I’ll leave it as an exercise for the reader to compare it to Houston’s codes. San Antonio City Council is going through a similar process to get the ordinances updated to allow them to operate, with Uber also in the wings; the relevant committee meets Wednesday. If Randy Bear‘s experiences with taxis in SA are indicative, there will likely be a fair amount of public support for the new kids in town. A statement from Lyft about the letter and their entry is beneath the fold.


Statement from Lyft:

We are in an exploratory phase in San Antonio with Lyft Pioneer, a program that allows new users to take free rides on the Lyft platform. We’ve already seen a very positive response from San Antonio community members, who see Lyft as a safe, affordable and reliable transportation option.

We’ve been impressed by the city’s commitment to innovation and sustainability, and we look forward to working with Mayor Castro toward a permanent solution that focuses on safety and allows ridesharing to thrive in San Antonio.

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