San Antonio City Council will soon be taking up with vehicles for hire issue, and so far things have gone about as smoothly as you’d expect.
A proposal from City staff to integrate rideshare companies into the existing Vehicle for Hire Ordinance, and therefore legalizing rideshare operations in San Antonio, was met with unanimous opposition from the Transportation Advisory Board (TAB) Monday evening. It seems arguments from all sides of the issue remain unresolved – and just as heated.
The TAB is made up of citizens, representatives from transportation, tourism, and hospitality industries. The board’s vote to reject the proposal that would legalize rideshare was not surprising.
The traditional vehicle for hire (taxi, limo, shuttle, carriage) industry claims that the transportation network companies are unfairly and unsafely circumventing regulation under the guise of mobile technology. The TNC’s, and San Antonio Police Department Assistant Director Steven Baum, claim that regulations need to be changed to accommodate for an evolving industry – including its technology.
“The (proposed) system’s a little different, the system for the transportation network companies puts responsibility on the companies to vet the drivers (and vehicles) according to city standards,” Baum said. Traditional companies go through a testing and verification process through the City.
“The way we validate (those standards) is we do random, unannounced inspections,” he said, compared to the regularly scheduled inspections granted to traditional vehicles for hire and their drivers. Baum assured TAB members that neither public safety nor the city’s economy would be put at risk.
“I can’t believe you’re shoving this ordinance down our throat,” said TAB member George Alva during one of the most heated exchanges between a board member and Baum. “From the very beginning your mind was made up.”
Three months ago Baum was tasked by the City Council Public Safety Committee to see if there was a way to integrate rideshare into the current ordinance (Chapter 33 of City Code) and present his findings at the committee’s Aug. 6 meeting. From there, the committee can decide if further research is required or if the proposal should proceed to a City Council vote.
On a tangential note, Joshua Sanders, one of the people that has been representing Lyft in Houston, sent me this update to Lyft’s insurance policy. The point of this is that once a ride has been accepted, Lyft’s commercial policy is the primary policy in all instances now. As we know, there have been questions about how insurance works with TNCs like Uber and Lyft, and recent stories have indicated that representatives of Texas’ insurance industry see gaps in the coverage. I would be interested to know what they think about this.
Finally, there’s a provocative op-ed in the Chron from Michael Zoorob, who is an intern working as a research assistant at the Southwest ADA Center, a nonprofit disability organization in Houston. He takes Uber and Lyft to task for their lack of accessibility for disabled folks.
So why can’t the disabled community just use other modes of transportation? For one thing, the rapid entrance of Uber and Lyft – following a pattern of “break the rules and ask questions later” – has eroded the supply of accessible taxis, as seen in some cities. In San Francisco, a quarter of the wheelchair-accessible taxi fleet is unused as taxi drivers have flocked to ride-sharing companies.
For all the complaints about ride-share companies, you’d have a tough time finding a best-practices model among traditional taxi services. In Houston, there are only 50 accessible taxis on the market covering more than 600 square miles. They make up about one-fiftieth of all taxis. So if you use a wheelchair, good luck hailing a cab.
As a society, we have decided that people with disabilities deserve equal opportunity to participate in public life. This logic compelled Congress in 1990 to pass the Americans with Disabilities Act. In his signing remarks, analogizing the ADA with the fall of the Berlin Wall, President George H. W. Bush declared: “We will not accept, we will not excuse, we will not tolerate discrimination in America. … I now lift my pen to sign this Americans with Disabilities Act and say: Let the shameful wall of exclusion finally come tumbling down.”
It is precisely this “shameful wall of exclusion” that Uber, Lyft and other transportation providers seek, however unwittingly, to maintain with their standards of service to the disabled community. And it is wrong.
It is wrong to relegate citizens with disabilities to a separate, segregated system of transportation, just as it is wrong to deny them access to City Hall or to a grocery store because accommodating them is costly. It is a fact of American history that when marginalized groups are allowed access only to segregated services, these services tend to be inferior. This is the reality for many people with disabilities who must rely on state-provided paratransit services.
Uber and Lyft must play by the same rules as everyone else in the taxi marketplace, including providing service to everyone – a standard that also bears improving among taxi companies. Being innovative does not excuse trampling on the rights of people with disabilities.
As Zoorob notes, there was a lawsuit filed recently against Uber and Lyft by disability rights activists. I’ve said before that I’m not sure how their business model, which relies on the personal vehicles of their drivers, can handle making these accommodations. Zoorob makes a compelling case that they need to figure it out, or else.
UPDATE: Meanwhile, the Chron opines again in favor of Uber and Lyft, while CM Stephen Costello and Texpatriate’s Noah Horwitz, who is working for Cindy Clifford’s firm, have dueling op-eds in TribTalk about it.