Took longer than we thought it would, but on we move to the next contentious debate.
Companies that connect riders with drivers via smartphone and tablet applications could operate legally in Houston, subject to certain conditions, under a proposal to be considered Wednesday by the City Council.
The suggested changes to Houston’s taxi and limousine laws follow more than a year of discussions among city staff, taxi and limo operators and the new companies, Uber and Lyft.
Lyft’s future in Houston, however, remains uncertain. A spokeswoman said the company was unwilling to use the driver background check system required by the city, believing its own procedure is better.
Local cab and limo companies sought to keep Uber and Lyft out of the Houston market, citing concerns about their safety and insurance. Cabbies said they felt unfairly burdened by some city rules that the upstart companies wanted to ignore.
Greater Houston Transportation Company, owner of the local Yellow Cab and United Cab businesses and the city’s largest taxi company, remains opposed to the proposal, spokeswoman Cindy Clifford said.
Taxis must provide trips for disabled passengers, but the same demand is not placed on the so-called transportation networking companies, Clifford said.
Part of the discussion includes a rule that would require the transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft to guarantee that five percent of their drivers can accommodate wheelchair passengers. For what it’s worth, a good friend of mine who now lives in North Carolina suffers from multiple sclerosis and spends most of her time in a wheelchair. When she and her husband (who is from Houston; she grew up in Sealy) last visited, they drove a normal rental car, some four-door sedan. Her folding wheelchair fit easily into the trunk. The challenge was getting her from the wheelchair into the car and vice versa. Her husband was well-practiced in this, and though it took a couple of minutes at each end, he got the job done. Anyone could have done this, with some patience and a bit of upper body strength. I’m saying all this because I’m wondering what such a requirement by the city would look like. Is it about the capability of the vehicles, or of the drivers, or both?
In revising its rules, Houston built on policies in other parts of the country, then “closed a gap in some areas,” said Christopher Newport, chief of staff to Mayor Annise Parker.
As in other cities, the new companies have pressed into Houston on shaky footing. Uber and Lyft launched preemptively in February, despite city officials urging them to be patient. The companies continued discussions with the city to change the taxi laws.
“The biggest takeaway is when everyone comes together to work, we end up coming to a great resolution that is going to be best for riders and for drivers,” said Chris Nakutis, a Midwest general manager for Uber who oversees operations in eight cities, including Houston.
However, a Lyft spokesperson, Chelsea Wilson, said the city’s code would still inhibit its operations, in part because the city requires a criminal background check that includes fingerprinting. Lyft’s system of background checks is more thorough, Wilson said.
Changes to the taxi and limo laws also would forbid Uber and Lyft drivers from soliciting rides through means other than their online systems, and would ban them from cab stands “near any passenger depot, hotel, airport, ship or ferry landing, bus stop or station.”
Rules regarding commercial use of Houston’s passenger airports mean drivers for Uber and Lyft cannot pick up or drop off passengers without a city permit. Cab and limo companies, as well as airport shuttles, pay for annual permits to come to the airport, and also pay a per-trip fee.
I’m okay with the restrictions on soliciting rides, the ban on using cab stands, and the permit requirements for going to and from the airport. I wouldn’t have thought people would use these services for airport rides, but apparently they do. As far as the concerns expressed by Lyft spokesperson Chelsea Wilson go, I can’t see why it wouldn’t be acceptable under the proposed ordinance for a TNC to have stricter background check requirements, as long as theirs contain the city’s requirements. It’s not clear to me what the stumbling block is there.
If you’ve been following this blog for awhile, you know that I am generally favorable towards revising the existing vehicle for hire code to allow Uber and Lyft and the like to operate in Houston. I have some reservations, mostly stemming from the disdain that Uber in particular has shown towards the existing code while the process was in the works, but overall I think the addition of TNCs will be a net positive. A few weeks ago I noted some objections raised by Lauren Barrash, founder and CEO of The Wave, in one of the many stories on Uber and Lyft. She contacted me after that post came out, and we corresponded via email and had a longish phone conversation, in which she went into a lot more detail about her concerns. I was going to write a full post about all we discussed, but between the high volume of activity lately and life in general (cue tiny violins), I never quite got around to it. So, I’m going to take this opportunity here to boil it all down to two points that had some resonance with me and that I haven’t seen discussed much here or elsewhere.
1. How exactly is enforcement going to work? This is one part lack of resources – Barrash says the city doesn’t have enough inspectors now, and as we know there’s a looming budget crunch that may put even more pressure on this – and one part the fact that unlike cabs, Uber and Lyft vehicles aren’t necessarily readily identifiable. Yes, I know about the Lyft pink mustaches, but right now at least some Lyft drivers aren’t using them, either to avoid being cited or to avoid harassment. However you slice it, there will be a lot more vehicles subject to city ordinances, but no more inspectors or police officers to oversee them.
2. Other safety issues. This includes a range of concerns, such as drivers having access to customers’ cell numbers, drivers being heavily dependent on smartphones for dispatches and directions, drivers contributing to congestion and general chaos at large events like the Rodeo, and drivers potentially competing with each other (since they can know where their peers are) for pickups in the hot zones. Also a potential problem is that there are no shift limits or rest requirements for Uber and Lyft drivers.
There’s more, and I may return to this subject now that vehicles for hire are back on the front burner, but you get the gist of it. I’m sure there won’t be a vote this week, so we have at least a few more days to talk about this. The Highwayman has more.