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San Francisco

In case you thought scooters were not enough of a menace

How do pogo sticks grab you?

San Franciscans may soon be able to bounce their way around town, if a Swedish-based mobility company has its way.

Earlier this month, start-up company Cangoroo announced plans to deploy hundreds of pogo sticks in select cities to directly compete with electric scooters as a transportation option.

Cangoroo officials said they plan to first launch their pogo sticks in the Swedish cities of Malmo and Stockholm sometime this summer.

After that, they would deploy the sticks in both London and San Francisco.

[…]

[Cangoroo CEO and co-founder Adam] Mikkelsen said Cangoroo would be ready to work with city officials, including the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, on regulations and safety before launching the product.

“We don’t have specific details about this company but we will review any new transportation service to ensure compliance with existing laws,” SFMTA spokesman Paul Rose said in a statement.

My sister-in-law, when she was a kid, managed to bite through her lower lip as the result of a pogo stick mishap. Maybe pogo stick technology has advanced in the last thirty or forty years, but still. Good luck with those safety regulations, is what I’m saying. What do you think is the over/under on when these things show up in Austin?

How secure is the future of ridesharing?

Just a couple of recent stories that got me thinking. Item One:

Uber’s business model isn’t all there: While there’s optimism about elements of the core business, the company lost more than $3 billion on operations in 2018, revenue growth slowed between Q3 and Q4, and there’s a possibility that the company might continue to offer big incentive payments to drivers for quite some time and never reach profitability.

But one detail in particular caught my eye. About 24 percent of Uber’s bookings—all the money that customers pay through the app and in cash, including driver earnings—occur in just five cities: New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, and São Paulo.

[…]

This vulnerability casts a new light on, for example, Uber’s 2015 humiliation of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, when the company fought off the City Council’s proposed vehicle cap. That was a warning to other politicians, and a show of power, but it was also a vital business move. The company’s filing also mentions, as a cautionary tale, what happened afterward: Just three years later, the City Council approved minimum rates for drivers and a cap on the number of new ride-hail vehicles. The company also mentions its regulatory challenges in London and San Francisco.

During Uber’s previous skirmishes with cities, I always thought the company’s huge reach and light footprint (very few local employees or inventory) gave them a lot of leverage. They could afford to play hardball with Austin, Texas, one week and San Antonio the next, with little impact on a business distributed so widely.

The filing reveals that certain cities actually have a pretty strong negotiating position. So do the company’s drivers in those places. And its rivals. What appears to be a global, decentralized platform is in fact highly dependent on the whims of a few local politicians, drivers’ groups, and taxi cab unions that can engineer big chokepoints for the company—as London Mayor Sadiq Khan must have done when he revoked the company’s license in 2017. (They got it back last year.)

Another example of the company’s vulnerability by concentration: 15 percent of the bookings pot comes from trips that begin or end at an airport. That might not be so surprising, since airports tend to be cab trips even for car commuters, and being a long way from town, produce high fares. But airports offer a preview of the changing municipal economics that could be coming for Uber. The airport in Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, made more money in 2017 from parking fees than it did from American Airlines. Parking accounted for more than a quarter of the airport’s revenue. As passengers shift to ride-hailing, airport revenues are declining. Airports are an easy place where public authorities can implement a fee on Uber rides to make up for the lost revenue.

That same dynamic is set to play out in cities as well. Congestion pricing, which will soon exist in two of Uber’s biggest markets (New York and London), is just the first way that governments are exerting more fine-grained control over how cities raise money from automobile use.

So Uber continues to burn through money with no end in sight, and is particularly vulnerable to the regulatory whims of a handful of large cities. Hold that thought as we look at Item Two:

Lyft’s initial public offering headache just got worse.

Bloomberg reported Wednesday that following Lyft’s initial public offering, which didn’t exactly go super well, the company is now looking at two separate lawsuits from its investors. At the time the company went public last month, Lyft’s shares were initially priced at $72. But shortly after, its share price began to fall—and kept falling—with the company at $58.36 as of Thursday.

According to Bloomberg, investors allege in their suits—both of which were filed in state court in San Francisco—that Lyft’s claim to 39 percent market share was maybe not quite in line with reality.

The suits also reportedly faulted the company for failing to alert investors ahead of its recent electric bike recall, yet another problem facing the company at present (aside, of course, from ongoing controversy over Lyft’s labor practices).

Lyft, which also loses money hand over fist, had a disappointing IPO and is dealing with shareholder lawsuits and problems with their bike-related subsidiaries. They would also face the same potential regulatory challenges as Uber.

My thought in reading these stories is that the future of urban transportation is increasingly being sold as ridesharing powered by autonomous vehicles. We should be wary about investing in big transit projects because 10 or 20 years from now we’re all going to be taking robot-powered Ubers. But what if Uber and Lyft fail as companies before we get there? What if a combination of technology challenges, cash flow problems, regulatory roadblocks, and competition from other interests stop them in their tracks? Maybe light rail will be seen as as white elephant in twenty or thirty years, but right now our existing light rail lines move tens of thousands of people around every day; in a different political climate, that number would be much higher.

If Uber and Lyft do fail, it is very likely that some other companies will spring up to fill in the gap. Driverless car technology is moving forward relentlessly, regardless of what its ultimate applications may be. Autonomous vehicles are going to be in the transit mix going forward, in some form and with some corporations behind it. I just remain wary of the bold predictions, and I remain convinced that we need to continue investing in things that we already know will work.

A flock of electronic scooters descending on Austin

Not actually one of the signs of the apocalypse, though I’m sure it was annoying.

Scooter!

Seemingly overnight, Austin was buzzing with electric scooters last month. Scooter riders weaved through crowded sidewalks and traffic downtown and zoomed out of drivers’ blind spots near the University of Texas campus, catching motorists and pedestrians alike off guard.

Bird Rides, a dockless scooter company, deployed a fleet of thin, black scooters in April that quickly grew to almost 700. Then came LimeBike, which flooded the streets with their own white and green Lime-S scooter models on April 16.

Then, just as quickly, they disappeared last weekend.

The appearance of rentable scooters across the city briefly threw Austin’s political leaders into a frenzy as city government officials rushed to roll out a plan to regulate the businesses, which had started operating before a city-led pilot program could begin.

“In order to forestall a predictable and unmanageable swamping of our streets with thousands of vehicles, ATD recommends a more nimble response than our previously expressed pilot timeframe,” Robert Spillar, director of the Austin Transportation Department, said in a letter to the mayor and Austin City Council members.

The council worked until after 2 a.m. Friday to change city code and prohibit leaving dockless scooters or bicycles on city sidewalks and streets until a permitting process begins. Violators can have their scooters impounded and face a $200 fine for each seized scooter.

Over the weekend, both California-based companies pulled their vehicles from Austin city streets — but not before the city’s transportation department impounded about 70 of them.

[…]

Both companies placed their scooters on sidewalks and street corners throughout the city. Customers could download a smartphone app that allowed them to see the vehicles’ locations in real time, unlock them and pay the rental fee. Both Bird and Lime-S charge a base fee of one dollar, then 15 cents per minute of use.

Austin initially planned to begin a pilot program for what it calls “dockless mobility” — meaning vehicles that aren’t kept in racks or docking stations — starting May 1, but Bird and LimeBike deployed their scooters before it went into effect.

So the city pivoted to the new permitting process, which will require a $30 fee for each vehicle and cap the initial number of vehicles per licensed operator at 500. The city plans to roll out the new process shortly.

And not a minute too soon: The Austin Transportation Department said it’s coordinating with 15 different dockless mobility companies that have expressed interest in coming to Austin.

If you’re having flashbacks to the early days of Uber in Texas, congratulations. You’re not alone. At least in this case the scooter companies were noticeably less pugilistic in their press releases. But then, both of them had done the same thing in San Francisco; as my old music teacher used to say, once is a mistake and twice is a habit. So be forewarned, Mayor Turner and Houston City Council, because these guys are coming, sooner or later. And that rumbling sound you hear in the distance is the early gestation of a lobbying effort to pass a statewide rideshare bill for scooters in the Lege. Again, don’t be caught off guard. We’ve seen this movie before.

Who wants to rent their house out to Super Bowl visitors?

I don’t, but some people hope to make a lot of money renting theirs.

With the Super Bowl heading to Houston next month, locals are starting to see dollar signs as well, hoping to cash in on visitors’ willingness to pay thousands to rent their homes or apartments during the biggest football game of the year.

While Beyonce isn’t likely to hit up Airbnb this year – she’s hails from Houston, after all – plenty of other celebrities will need places to stay. So will countless corporate executives with sky-high lodging budgets, and, of course, all the others simply unable to get a hotel room in town.

Exactly how many takers, and how much they’re willing to spend, will become clearer after the participating teams have been determined. In the meantime, a couple of thousand hopeful Houstonians already are checking their emails waiting for the alert that shows their place has been booked during the game.

“My hope is the market is going to get really tight for premium properties,” said Michael Salinas, a CPA who’s listing his three-bedroom townhouse in Montrose for $3,699 a night during Super Bowl LI.

Local listings on the popular Airbnb rental website have increased 40 percent in just the last two months, the company said.

The city expects about 140,000 out of town guests and there are roughly 84,000 hotel rooms in the metro area, according to A.J. Mistretta, a spokesman for the city’s tourism bureau.

“We believe most properties will be full but there are a lot of factors that play in, including who ends up in the game and how far their fans will travel for the experience,” Mistretta said in an email.

Chris Bisel is listing his four-bedroom Meyerland home for $5,500 per night. With that, Bisel is offering free chauffeur service in his GMC Yukon XL Denali. He hasn’t had any takers yet.

“Frankly, we put it up there at sort of a crazy price just to see what would happen. If we rent the place out for five or six nights, we clear 25 or 30 grand,” he said, enough to pay for the first year of college for his daughter, a high school senior.

[…]

As of Jan. 1, Houston had about 5,700 listings on Airbnb, according to the company’s most recent data, up from about 4,100 listings at the beginning of November.

During Super Bowl weekend last year, Airbnb guests stayed in more than 4,000 listings in the Bay Area, said Laura Spanjian, public policy director for the San Francisco-based company. The average rate was $225 per night.

“There are some very expensive listings, but there are also some very affordable ones,” Spanjian said.

Yes, that’s the same Laura Spanjian who had been the city’s Sustainability Director under Mayor Parker. The wide disparity between what some AirBnB listers in Houston are asking and what people actually got on average in San Francisco makes me think the folks here are dreaming a little too hard, but I guess you never know. Maybe San Francisco had more hotel space available, and maybe fewer people made the kind of last-minute arrangements that can lead to premium prices being charged. I do know people in Austin who have made a bundle renting out their places during SxSW, so it is possible. It’s not practical for me and my family at this time, but if it works for you, go for it. Just avoid renting to Johnny Manziell and you should be fine.

Uber pulls driverless cars from San Francisco

Score one for the California DMV.

Uber pulled its self-driving cars off San Francisco’s streets Wednesday after the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles revoked their registrations, effectively ending the company’s controversial pilot program after just one week.

The move marked a dramatic end to Uber’s standoff with state regulators over the San Francisco-based company’s insistence that it did not need a permit to test its self-driving cars, even though the state said it did and other companies testing such cars have complied. It’s not clear when or under what conditions self-driving Ubers might return to California’s roads.
“We’re now looking at where we can redeploy these cars,” an Uber spokeswoman wrote in an emailed statement, “but remain 100 percent committed to California and will be redoubling our efforts to develop workable statewide rules.”

The DMV’s crackdown was a setback for Uber in what many viewed as the ride-hailing giant’s attempt to re-write California’s autonomous vehicle rules. The $68 billion company caught state officials by surprise when it launched its fleet of self-driving vehicles on San Francisco roads last week. After being forced to bow to state regulators, Uber said Wednesday that it has no plans to apply for a permit, but is “open to having the conversation.”

By revoking the registrations for all 16 of Uber’s self-driving cars in California, the DMV made good on a previous threat to shut down the company’s unauthorized pilot program. The company has been running a similar pilot program in Pittsburgh since fall without major incident.

“Uber is welcome to test its autonomous technology in California like everybody else, through the issuance of a testing permit that can take less than 72 hours to issue after a completed application is submitted,” a DMV spokesman wrote in an emailed statement. “The department stands ready to assist Uber in obtaining a permit as expeditiously as possible.”

DMV Director Jean Shiomoto also sent a letter to Uber, promising that the department fully supports the autonomous technologies.

“We are committed to assisting Uber in their efforts to innovate and advance this ground-breaking technology,” the director wrote. Though the state’s letter indicated that Uber had expressed interest in applying for a permit, the company was non-committal late Wednesday.

[…]

Uber’s decision to take its cars off the streets came as growing numbers of people expressed concerns over the vehicles’ safety.

Brian Wiedenmeir, executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, said he saw self-driving Ubers make multiple illegal and unsafe “right-hook” turns across bicycle lanes during a test ride before the program’s launch last week.

“Those vehicles are not yet ready for our streets,” Wiedenmeir wrote in a post on the coalition’s website.

See here for the background. The Guardian goes into more detail about the safety concerns.

Concerns are mounting about how the cars behave in dense urban environments, particularly in San Francisco, where there are an estimated 82,000 bike trips each day across more than 200 miles of cycling lanes.

The San Francisco Bicycle Coalition has released a warning about Uber’s carsbased on staff members’ first-hand experiences in the vehicles. When the car was in “self-driving” mode, the coalition’s executive director, who tested the car two days before the launch, observed it twice making an “unsafe right-hook-style turn through a bike lane”.

That means the car crossed the bike path at the last minute in a manner that posed a direct threat to cyclists. The maneuver also appears to violate state law, which mandates that a right-turning car merge into the bike lane before making the turn to avoid a crash with a cyclist who is continuing forward.

“It’s one of the biggest causes of collisions,” said coalition spokesman Chris Cassidy, noting that the group warned Uber of the problem. Company officials told the coalition that Uber was working on the issue but failed to mention that the self-driving program would begin two days later without permits, he said.

“The fact that they know there’s a dangerous flaw in the technology and persisted in a surprise launch,” he said, “shows a reckless disregard for the safety of people in our streets.”

Uber spokeswoman Chelsea Kohler told the Guardian in an email that “engineers are continuing to work on the problem”, and said that the company has instructed drivers to take control when approaching right turns on a street with a bike lane. She did not respond to questions about how the cars, Volvo XC90s, detect cyclists and what kind of training and testing the firm conducted before implementation.

Linda Bailey, executive director of the National Association of City Transportation Officials, which has raised formal objections to partially automated vehicles, said research raises serious alarms about the ability of drivers to properly intervene in semi-autonomous cars.

“It’s very clear that people are not good at paying attention,” she said, adding, “We’re waiting for enough people to die for something to happen. It’s not a great way to make policy.”

Local advocates noted that the Uber cars have been caught doing four out of the top five causes of collisions or injuries in the city – running red lights, going through stop signs, unsafe turns and failing to yield to pedestrians.

“These behaviors we’re seeing,” said Nicole Ferrara, executive director of advocacy group Walk San Francisco, “are some of the most dangerous behaviors in San Francisco that lead to traffic deaths and severe injuries.”

The technology just isn’t quite there yet. Relying on human backup for these self-driving vehicles is a bad idea that won’t work outside of a controlled environment because people in a driverless car aren’t going to be paying attention to the operation of that car, just like passengers in regular cars today don’t. On top of that, Uber did its usual disregard the rules and barrel ahead on their own thing, and this time the government agency they attempted to bypass stood firm. I have no doubt that this technology is coming – the Pittsburgh experiment is still going on, with no major incidents – but that doesn’t mean it will or should happen on Uber’s schedule. The fact that regulators need to catch up is a feature here, not a bug. Wired and the NYT have more.

Driverless Ubers arrive in San Francisco

Here they come, ready or not.

Uber has always had a special relationship with this city. The ride-hailing company was founded and headquartered here. In its early days, one of the towns where Uber grew fastest was its hometown.

On Wednesday, Uber again highlighted its special relationship with San Francisco. The company has started offering its self-driving car service to passengers here, making it the second place in the world where Uber offers autonomous vehicles for public use.

It also marks the debut of the XC90 self-driving car, a Volvo sport utility vehicle outfitted with lidar, a kind of radar based on laser beams; wireless technology; and seven different cameras. It was produced in collaboration with Uber’s Advanced Technologies Center, the company’s driverless tech division based in Pittsburgh. Uber began offering self-driving car service in Pittsburgh this year.

“The promise of self-driving is core to our mission of reliable transportation, everywhere for everyone,” Anthony Levandowski, Uber’s vice president of self-driving technology, said in a blog post.

[…]

Starting Wednesday, any passenger who requests a ride from UberX, one of the cheaper options of the service, may be picked up by an autonomous vehicle. Those chosen will receive a notification inside the Uber app, where they can accept, or cancel and request a regular driver. A company engineer sits behind the wheel in each self-driving vehicle and can take over when needed.

Three passengers will be able to fit into the XC90 vehicles. Riders will be able to play with a large touch screen that displays the route the car is taking, as well as a rendered version of the environment the car sees through its cameras and laser guidance systems. Uber also lets passengers take selfies from a camera facing the back seat, which they can email to themselves and share on social media.

It is unclear if Uber is allowed to test its driverless vehicle technology within San Francisco. As of Dec. 8, the company’s name was not listed on California’s Department of Motor Vehicles website as one that held a permit to test autonomous vehicles in the state. Other companies, including Google, Tesla and General Motors, all hold permits to test autonomous vehicles in California.

“All of our vehicles are compliant with applicable federal and state laws,” an Uber spokeswoman said in a statement.

The company said that under California’s D.M.V. definition, autonomous vehicles are those that drive “without the active physical control or monitoring of a natural person.” Uber said its self-driving cars, which require a human behind the wheel to monitor or control them, did not fall under that strict definition.

In a statement, the California D.M.V. said, “20 manufacturers have already obtained permits to test hundreds of cars on California roads. Uber shall do the same.”

Of course there’s a question about whether or not Uber is compliant with relevant law as it proceeds. It wouldn’t be Uber if there wasn’t at least a little bit of questionable legality. And it keeps on escalating.

“It is illegal for the company to operate its self-driving vehicles on public roads until it receives an autonomous vehicle testing permit,” wrote Brian Soublet, chief counsel for the California DMV in a strongly worded letter to Anthony Levandowski, who oversees Uber’s autonomous group. “If Uber does not confirm immediately that it will stop its launch and seek a testing permit, DMV will initiate legal action.”

An Uber spokesman didn’t have immediate comment Wednesday on the DMV letter.

“Based on how the car is operating and used, we feel strongly the car is not an autonomous vehicle,” said Lior Ron, senior director of engineering for Uber’s Advanced Technology Group, during a presentation with journalists Tuesday.

California requires companies testing autonomous cars—defined as having technology capable of “operating or driving the vehicle without active physical control or monitoring of a natural person”—to have a permit issued by the state and to have a test driver who is able to take over driving.

Mr. Soublet in a call with reporters Wednesday dismissed Uber’s argument that the car isn’t self-driving because a human is behind the wheel taking control. “They’ve equipped the vehicles with technology that allows them to operate autonomously and that’s the key,” Mr. Soublet said.

In his letter to Uber, Mr. Soublet said 20 companies—including Alphabet Inc.’s Google—are approved to test a total of 130 self-driving vehicles that are being driven by more than 480 permitted test drivers in California. “They are obeying the law and are responsibly testing and advancing their technology,” he wrote.

Uber may be balking at disclosure requirements from the DMV as part of its permitting process. The department said companies with an autonomous vehicle permit are required to hand over accident reports within 10 days of an incident and to disclose how many times humans had to take the wheel, both of which are available for public inspection.

Bryant Walker Smith, a University of South Carolina assistant professor of law and expert on autonomous car law, said Uber may have a plausible argument as the law allows some interpretation. Still, he said in an email, Uber’s actions are “in tension with the law if interpreted in context. This was a law intended to apply to aspirationally autonomous vehicles. It was in large part about building trust, and Uber is not building any trust in its systems or practices by doing this.”

Awesome. I can’t wait to see how this plays out.

Anyway. The rollout here will be bigger than the one in Pittsburgh, and the hilly terrain of San Francisco will no doubt give the driverless cars – pardon me, the hip term now appears to be Highly Automated Vehicles, or HAVs – a sterner test than the one before. Well, except for weather conditions, as Pittsburgh is now experiencing snow, which is something San Francisco cannot provide. We’ll see how it goes this time. Forbes and TechCrunch have more.

Google enters the rideshare market

This will be worth watching.

Google is moving onto Uber Technologies Inc.’s turf with a ride-sharing service to help San Francisco commuters join carpools, a person familiar with the matter said, jumping into a booming but fiercely competitive market.

Google, a unit of Alphabet Inc., began a pilot program around its California headquarters in May that enables several thousand area workers at specific firms to use the Waze app to connect with fellow commuters. It plans to open the program to all San Francisco-area Waze users this fall, the person said. Waze, which Google acquired in 2013, offers real-time driving directions based on information from other drivers.

Unlike Uber and its crosstown San Francisco rival Lyft Inc., which each largely operate as on-demand taxi businesses, Waze wants to connect riders with drivers who are already headed in the same direction. The company has said it aims to make fares low enough to discourage drivers from operating as taxi drivers. Waze’s current pilot program charges riders at most 54 cents a mile—less than most Uber and Lyft rides—and, for now, Google doesn’t take a fee.

Some years ago, I remember reading a story in the Chronicle about Houston drivers cruising through the park-and-ride lots in the mornings to pick up passengers for the commute into downtown. They were doing this because having an extra person or two meant they could take the HOV lane, thus greatly reducing the drive time they’d face if they went solo, as they would have done otherwise. This was done more or less ad hoc – I’m pretty sure this was all before Facebook and smartphones were things – but it seemed to work pretty well. I bring it up because that’s what this story reminds me of; having the smartphone app and the financial backing of a behemoth like Google just formalizes what had been an ad hoc process borne of frustration and impatience. I have no idea how well this will scale outside of a unique environment like the San Francisco area, but if anyone can make it into something viable, it’s Google. Slate and the Associated Press have more.

iCars

Hey, look, it’s a new rideshare option for Houston.

A new ride app promises on-demand luxury car services — and no surge pricing.

San Francisco-based iCars put its luxury ride app in drive for the Houston and Dallas markets, as the company continues to expand throughout Texas and the U.S., according to a July 11 press release. The service started in the Golden Gate City in early 2016.

The company offers luxury sedan, SUV and “sprinter class” options, with the latter choice offering bigger vehicles to accommodate more passengers. The service offers more than on-demand usage. Users can set up booking times near demand or even for future dates, and the company aims its services toward hotels and travel management companies.

Regional transportation companies provide ride services for the company. The driving companies for iCars must meet a certain set of requirements, including $1 million in commercial liability insurance, regularly maintained vehicles and random drug testing.

Their Facebook page is here, and here is a press release from iCars’ debut in San Francisco in February. From the description, it sounds like this is a system to connect people to existing sedan/limo services, similar in fashion to Pocket Cab, which would make it a competitor of Uber Black. I could be wrong, but that’s the impression I get. It’s clearly not for the masses, but I say the more options, the better.

A first data point on the Uber/Lyft experience

I’ve been saying since the vehicles for hire saga began that we should circle back in a year or so and review how things have gone. Thanks to an academic study of users’ experiences with Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar in San Francisco, we now have a data point to suggest what we might expect here.

Uber

The study, conducted by Lisa Rayle, Susan Shaheen, Nelson Chan, Danielle Dai and Robert Cervero, surveyed 380 people intercepted in the evening in three popular San Francisco neighborhoods, where they had either just exited a car with one of these apps or used them recently. The group isn’t representative of all “ridesourcing” users in the Bay Area, as the researchers call them. But other data makes it possible to directly compare their experiences to taxi and transit use.

In one of their more striking findings, Rayle and co-authors found that 66 percent of the trips taken by people who use these app services would have been twice as long if taken by public transit instead (that’s if nearby transit was at least available). That number includes all of the time spent just waiting for the trip to begin.

[…]

Lyft

An Uber car doesn’t move any faster through traffic than a taxi does. But the study also found that passengers were likely to wait significantly less for a “ridesourcing” car than a taxi. Using data from a taxi survey conducted by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, the researchers compared self-reported wait times for “ridesourcing” passengers and taxi riders, depending on the time of day and location in town.

During weekdays, 93 percent of “ridesourcing” passengers said they waited less than 10 minutes for a ride. For passengers ordering a Taxi, the same was true for only 35 percent of them.

[…]

When the researchers further divided this data by taxi zone across the city, they found that taxi wait times also differed significantly depending on location. Alternatives like Uber and Lyft, in other words, provided better service and service that was more consistent across time and location. Users prominently cited these advantages, along with the convenience of electronic payments, when asked why they used these apps.

It’s clear in all of this data that companies like Uber are filling an unmet need for better transportation. By doing so, they’re both complementing and competing with existing options. Many of these trips could not have been made easily by public transit, suggesting that these services supplement the transit network to some extent. Thirty-nine percent of people surveyed said they would have taken a taxi instead if these apps weren’t available. Another 8 percent, though, said they would not have made their trip at all if Uber, Lyft or Sidecar weren’t around. That means these companies are modestly expanding the market for rides, even as they steal business from taxis.

Read the whole thing, it’s worth your time. One thing this study highlights is the need for reliable and timely public transit, since a big reason why people used the TNCs in San Francisco is because they provided such faster trips, and often were the only viable alternative. This study also confirms that at least in San Francisco, cabs are losing business to the newcomers. They’re starting to fight back, which will warm the heart of anyone who believed that cab companies needed the competition. This is one study in one city, so it may not be representative of what’s happening elsewhere. I do hope someone does something like this in Houston.

Lawsuit filed against Comcast over residential WiFi hotspots

This ought to be interesting.

Two San Francisco-area residents are suing Comcast for plugging their home’s wireless router into what they call a power-wasting, Internet-clogging, privacy threatening network of public WiFi hot spots.

The class-action lawsuit, filed last week in U.S. District Court on behalf of Toyer Grear and her daughter Joycelyn Harris, claims Comcast is “exploiting them for profit” by using their home’s router as part of a nationwide network of public hot spots.

Comcast turned on the Xfinity WiFi hot spots for its Houston residential customers in June, and at the time a spokesman said 150,000 hot spots would eventually be enabled in the Houston area.

[…]

Although Comcast has said subscribers have the right to disable the secondary signal, the lawsuit claims the company turns the service on without permission and placed “the costs of its national WiFi network onto its customers.”

“Comcast’s contract with its customers is so vague that it is unclear as to whether Comcast even addresses this practice at all, much less adequately enough to be said to have obtained its customers’ authorization of this practice,” the lawsuit claims.

The lawsuit quotes a test conducted by Philadelphia networking technology company Speedify that concluded the secondary Internet channel will eventually push “tens of millions of dollars per month of the electricity bills needed to run their nationwide public WiFi network onto consumers.”

Tests showed that under heavy use, the secondary channel adds 30 percent to 40 percent more costs to a customer’s electricity bill, the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit also said “the data and information on a Comcast customer’s network is at greater risk” because the hot spot network “allows strangers to connect to the Internet through the same wireless router used by Comcast customers.”

The Chron’s Dwight Silverman was all over this when Comcast enabled this in Houston. Like Dwight, who blogged about the lawsuit here, I find the claim about a 30 to 40 percent increase in one’s electric bill to be dubious. That Xfinity router would have to be one hell of a power drain for that to be remotely true. The concern about a possible security breach is valid, though honestly anyone with an old home router, or one that uses default admin information, is at a greater risk. At least those Xfinity modem/routers have a complex password on them. As for the rest of it, we’ll see. I used the Xfinity router for awhile, mostly because when I plugged it in I didn’t realize it would make my existing router useless. (*) After a couple of weeks, I followed Dwight’s advice, bought an Arris Motorola Surfboard SB6141 modem, and had no trouble installing it or getting Comcast to activate it, and I’m back where I was before. Whatever does happen here won’t affect me, but I’ll be interested to see how it plays out, and to see if someone takes similar action here. What do you think?

(*) Once I installed the Comcast Xfinity modem/router, I had to switch nearly all my previously connected devices to it, as they wouldn’t connect to the Internet otherwise. The one exception was my TiVo, whose wireless network card continued to use the IP address it had gotten from my existing router with no problems. My theory was that its IP address was outside the range the Comcast router had allocated. It also continued to work with no intervention after I switched back. Who knows why for sure, but as that was the clunkiest interface to make updates to, I wasn’t complaining.

Maglev pods in the sky

And now for something completely different.

Image courtesy of: www.skytran.us

Image courtesy of: www.skytran.us

skyTran, Inc., headquartered at the NASA Research Park (NRP) near Mountain View, California, and Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), a company headquartered in Lod, Israel, entered into an agreement today for the construction of a skyTran Technology Demonstration System (TDS) on the grounds of IAI’s corporate campus. The agreement was executed by the Director of IAI’s Lahav Division, Yosef (Yossi) Melamed and by skyTran CEO, Jerry Sanders.

skyTran is the developer of the patented high-speed, elevated, levitating, energy-efficient, skyTran transportation system. The skyTran system is a network of computer-controlled, 2-person “jet-like” vehicles employing state-of-the-art passive, magnetic levitation (maglev) technology. skyTran systems will transport passengers in a fast, safe, green, and economical manner. skyTran intends to revolutionize public transportation and, with it, urban and suburban commuting.

IAI is a world leader in the development and production of aerospace systems and aircraft. It has accumulated nearly half a century of experience in creating and supplying advanced systems for customers worldwide and it devotes substantial resources to research and development.

Jerry Sanders remarked, “The support afforded by IAI is a breakthrough for skyTran. IAI, as a worldclass designer of aircraft and avionics, is the perfect partner to take skyTran from concept to construct.” Yossi Melamed declared, “We are proud to be part of this exciting moment in transportation history and to host the first SkyTran system in our grounds. The TDS will incorporate IAI’s advanced capabilities in the areas of engineering, robotics, and control.”

The TDS will incorporate skyTran’s salient features. It will provide a platform for skyTran vehicles to travel at high speeds, with full payloads while levitating. The TDS will enable testing, refinement, and validation of skyTran’s technology in a controlled environment.

The TDS will be followed by deployment of the first commercial skyTran system in Tel Aviv, Israel. Other projects worldwide are pending TDS completion.

Via Engadget and Swamplot, the latter of which picked it up because the featured image on the Engadget post, which I have included here, is a bizarre mashup of Houston’s downtown skyline and some freeway/green space combination that may not exist anywhere, courtesy of skyTran’s images page. The About and Benefits pages will tell you what there is to know about this idea, which if it is successful in Israel could come to San Francisco (skyTran’s US headquarters), where is would undoubtedly compete with the trolleys as a tourist attraction, if nothing else. After that, who knows? I wonder if John Culberson would let one of these things get built on Richmond Avenue.

The rideshare battles continue

From Houston:

The issue came up at yesterday’s council meeting and Mayor Annise Parker said that undercover Houston police sting operations have resulted in 26 citations for Uber and Lyft drivers. They were likely, misdemeanor violations for operating an illegal taxi.

The mayor’s remark was in reply to testimony from Duane Kamins, a partner, along with his brothers in Houston’s second largest cab company, Houston Transportation Services. He’s also a lawyer and filed an affidavit with the state revealing his findings during his own undercover operation where he was charged some dollars for trips to the pharmacy and thereabouts.

“We clearly have two rogue operators in the city of houston today, uber and lyft who are operating in clear violation of Chapeter 46 of the [city] code,” he said.

In his affidavit, which you can view below, Kamins describes getting charged $4.70 for a short trip from an Uber driver with the handle Abdessamad. He also details a $13 trip with Lyft driver Ballagio. And later, a $12 trip with a Lyft driver named Sebastian whom he knocks for relying too much on his GPS to get around.

Kamins, who obviously has a major stake in not wanting to add more competition to the local cabbie game, asked the council to take action against the companies. His beef is that someone is getting compensated for provided commercial transportation services on city streets.

You can click over and see the affidavit; I have not read through it myself. I can say that the statement at the end of the story that “Another taxi study is expected to be presented to the city council next week” is inaccurate. According to Christopher Newport, the Mayor’s office has arranged for two of the consultants that worked up the Houston Taxicab Study to make a presentation to City Council at a joint Texas Transportation Institute-Public Safety committee meeting on April 9th at 2 pm. There’s no new work being presented, just a discussion about the study and a chance for Council to ask questions.

Meanwhile, here’s an update from San Antonio:

The battle over the ability of ride-sharing services like Lyft and Uber to operate in San Antonio reached City Council members Wednesday, as officials heard from dozens of cabdrivers who fiercely argued those companies should play by the existing city rules or get out of town.

Police Chief William McManus told the council’s Public Safety Committee meeting that the city will continue to enforce its vehicle-for-hire ordinance, which for now prohibits ride-sharing services from operating, while his department spends the next 30 days researching how other cities have dealt with these companies.

He agreed to come back to the committee with an update next month.

[…]

The chief’s comments were met with applause from taxi and limo drivers who crowded the room.

Earlier in the meeting, dozens of them spoke passionately and forcefully, urging the city to enforce its vehicle-for-hire ordinance, which currently does not allow ride-sharing services to operate.

They lobbed criticism after criticism at the companies, questioning their safety, their regulations and their intentions.

They held signs saying, “Support your local cabdriver.” Some compared companies like Lyft and Uber to barbarians, carpetbaggers or cockroaches who have invaded the market.

Both Uber and Lyft officials said they will continue to operate but won’t charge passengers for now. Police have said a violation of the vehicle-for-hire ordinance occurs when a financial transaction takes place.

Lyft calls its fares “donations.” Passengers also can give drivers “increased” donations.

For now, Lyft is operating the Lyft Pioneer program in San Antonio, which means they don’t charge passengers for an initial period after the customer first signs up with the company. Lyft spokeswoman Katie Dally said in an email that the company still doesn’t know when the Pioneer program will end.

The Rivard Report adds a few more details:

The committee, chaired by District 7 Councilman Chris Medina includes District 3 Councilwoman Rebecca Viagran, District 5 Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales, District 9 Councilman Joe Krier, and District 10 Councilman Mike Gallagher, will review the matter at May 7 meeting when McManus, in collaboration with the Transportation Advisory Board, will present a proposal for going forward.

How the ordinance will be enforced until then will be kept a “secret” for now as a part of normal SAPD operations, McManus said, provoking a round of laughter after nearly revealing how police intend to catch offending drivers after Viagran posed the question.

See here for the background. My thinking on this really hasn’t changed that much since I first heard about Lyft and Uber. It doesn’t make sense to me to not allow them to operate in Houston, or any other city. It should be possible to change existing regulations to allow them entry while still keeping it fair for legacy taxi services and ensuring that drivers and passengers are sufficiently covered by insurance. I don’t know what Council is going to do with this once they get it – I mean, in the end I do expect Lyft and Uber to be granted entry, at least in some form – but I am ready for them to get on with it. Whatever action Council ultimately takes, I think they need to see it as a start and not as the end. Services like Uber, Lyft, Sidecar, whether you call them “ridesharing” or “transportation network companies”, are brand new. We can talk all we want about innovation and serving the public, but nobody knows what the medium to long term effect of these companies will be. Randy Bear notes that San Francisco is reviewing the economic effect of the newcomers and discussing whether they need their own regulations in addition to what the California Public Utilities Commission adopted. This is a process, and I don’t think we should expect to get it right the first time, given that we have so little experience to guide us. My understanding at this time is that Council should have this on their agenda by the end of the month. Let’s make an honest effort and be prepared to revisit it in another six or twelve months.

The dumbest plastic bag argument I’ve seen so far

This story is about the city of San Francisco rolling out a new ordinance intended to further limit the use of disposable bags by retailers. I’ve heard a variety of arguments against the different versions of this kind of law, but this one takes the cake.

Starting Oct. 1, BYOB in San Francisco will take on a whole new meaning.

Then, shoppers will have to bring their own bags when buying booze – and just about anything else – or incur a charge.

The city’s new Checkout Bag Ordinance requires that all retailers, with the exception of restaurants, bakeries and take-out joints (they don’t have to make the change until 2013), switch from plastic bags to paper or compostable and charge customers a dime for each sack.

[…]

Jon Ballesteros, vice president of public policy for the San Francisco Travel Association, said he hopes merchants are transparent about the charge. Tourism in San Francisco is an $8 billion business, and Ballesteros wants to make sure visitors are not caught off guard by the ordinance.

But Stephen Joseph, a lawyer for the Save the Plastic Bag coalition, a contingent of bag manufacturers, distributors and citizens, who unsuccessfully sued the city over the ordinance and plans to appeal, said the charge is bound to affect tourism.

“This is no way to welcome visitors,” he said. “Furthermore, it’s going to cause more garbage. What’s going to happen is they’re going to buy those paper bags – it’s not like they’re going to travel to San Francisco with reusable ones – and then they’re going to dump their bags when they get on their plane to leave town.”

Whether reusable bags are eco-friendly or not, Joseph argues that they are “horribly” unsanitary.

“San Francisco is encouraging people to put their food in the same bags they carry their gym clothes, the same bags in which they carry their underwear,” he said. “These bags don’t get washed, and they are filthy.”

Let me count the ways that this is silly.

1. We’re talking a dime a bag. There are legitimate concerns about such a surcharge being a burden on the poor, but I think it’s safe to say that people who vacation in other cities have the disposable income to handle it. A dime a bag, people.

2. It wouldn’t surprise me if most of the visitors Joseph is fretting about are supportive of the bag fee, assuming they even notice it. Most people like the idea of being environmentally responsible. I suppose there may eventually be some kind of culture-war blowback on this sort of thing (assuming there isn’t one already; I haven’t the fortitude to look), but let’s be honest, the kind of person that would sign on for that kind of crusade probably isn’t visiting San Francisco anyway.

3. Joseph seems to be suggesting that people use gym bags to transport their groceries. I don’t know about you, but we have cloth bags that we use for groceries, and that’s all we transport in them. Actually, as often as not we bring a soft-sided cooler as well, to carry perishables. You can wash cloth bags, too. I can’t believe I even have to discuss this.

If this is the best argument the plastic bag industry has to offer, they’re in sad shape.

Parklets

Not really sure what to make of this.

A parklet on Valencia Street in San Francisco

Six years ago, a posse of guerrilla designers fed a parking meter on a busy San Francisco street, unrolled sod in the parking space and plopped down a potted tree. The result was a tiny, fleeting swath of green that since has become known as a parklet.

Since then, parklets have gone legit in San Francisco, with at least eight permanent such spaces at last count.

Now, City Councilman Ed Gonzalez wants to bring the idea to Houston, accenting the 656-square-mile city with more green, about 100 square feet at a time. He has proposed changing city regulations to allow business owners to take over metered spaces in front of their stores and convert them to pocket parks with mini-lawns and flower beds.

“I don’t know of anyone who says we don’t need any more green space,” Gonzalez said, standing on a curb on Prairie Street downtown, looking at a vacant metered parking space and picturing it with benches and sod. “We’d be sitting there if it were there.”

Council approved sending Gonzalez’s idea to planning officials to come up with design guidelines, authorized areas, an application process and other details that turn an idea into an ordinance. City Council still would have to approve the resulting ordinance.

“I will confess to being somewhat skeptical about Houstonians being willing to give up parking places in front of their businesses, but I’m willing to bring something forward to the proper committee for discussion and do some research on this,” Mayor Annise Parker said at the budget meeting.

First, I just want to highlight that this would give businesses the option of creating a parklet if they want to. No one is being made to do anything if they don’t want to. Let’s all be clear on that.

As for whether any business will take advantage of this if given that opportunity, I couldn’t say. I’m still not sure what to make of this. I did a little googling around on parklets, so here’s the San Francisco Great Streets Project webpage, which has a lot of information including this:

The Great Streets Project conducted a before and after study of the first parklet built in San Francisco on Divisadero Street. Our
 research
 found
 that
 after the parklet was installed, pedestrian
 activity
, pedestrian satisfaction, and the sense
 of
 community
 character in the area had increased. Read more about this study on our blog post, or download the Divisadero Parklet Report.

What it doesn’t say is that there was an increase in business for the sites that have them. Like I said, whether local businesses will take advantage of this or not is an open question. In the meantime, here are some pictures of parklets, a story from Long Beach about parklets showing up there, and a story from San Francisco about one neighborhood that thinks they have enough parklets already.

Parking review coming

This ought to be interesting.

The Department of Planning and Development has scheduled three community meetings in April to hear ideas about possible changes in the city’s parking ordinance, which has been modified only slightly since it was adopted in 1989.

From the department’s press release:

Some of the topics that will be discussed include but are not limited to shared parking, parking management areas, types of occupancy and intensity of use (i.e. bars, types of restaurants, etc.), parking incentives for development along transit corridors or for restoration of historic buildings, lifts and valet parking just to name a few.

The meetings will be from 4 p.m.-6 p.m. April 7 at Havens Center, 1827 W. Alabama; from 4:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. April 14 at the Judson Robinson Jr. Community Center, 2020 Hermann Drive; and from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. April 21 at the United Way of Greater Houston, 50 Waugh Drive.

Houston’s urban landscape has changed dramatically since the parking ordinance was adopted in 1989. The area inside Loop 610 has grown much denser, clogging streets in some neighborhoods with the cars of all the new residents and their guests.

At the same time, leaders of efforts to redevelop neighborhoods like Midtown in a more urban style say strict parking requirements and other regulations have hindered their efforts.

“We’ve got to take a look at the ordinance and make it more relevant to today,” the city planning director, Marlene Gafrick, told me.

Parking requirements were not a part of the recent urban corridors ordinance, though there’s clearly a tight connection between the two. It’s good to see this being dealt with now, but it probably should have been part of the earlier discussion. Houston Tomorrow has more.

On a side note, the city of San Francisco recently completed a census of its parking spaces.

Over the last 18 months, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (MTA) has tallied every publicly accessible parking space within city limits, including free and metered spaces on-street and every publicly accessible garage [PDF map].

The total number of spaces, as Mayor Gavin Newsom recently announced on his Youtube site, is 441,541. Of the total, over 280,000 are on-street spaces, 25,000 of which are metered. For just the on-street spaces, that is roughly the equivalent area of Golden Gate Park.

I can only imagine what that number would be for Houston. It would be a heck of a challenge just to enumerate downtown’s parking capacity. Of course, San Francisco is a more transit-oriented city than Houston, and as such they need fewer parking spaces per capita. I hope that as Houston contemplates changes to its parking requirements, it takes into account what Houston’s transit system will look like a few years down the line. Yes, I know, that is still up in the air to an uncomfortable degree, but we should assume there will be a more robust system in a few years’ time than there is now, and ideally we will also consider what is yet to come beyond what we’re doing now.

Compost or else

Go, San Francisco!

Trash collectors in San Francisco will soon be doing more than just gathering garbage: They’ll be keeping an eye out for people who toss food scraps out with their rubbish.

San Francisco this week passed a mandatory composting law that is believed to be the strictest such ordinance in the nation. Residents will be required to have three color-coded trash bins, including one for recycling, one for trash and a new one for compost — everything from banana peels to coffee grounds.

The law makes San Francisco the leader yet again in environmentally friendly measures, following up on other green initiatives such as banning plastic bags at supermarkets.

Food scraps sent to a landfill decompose fast and turn into methane gas, a potent greenhouse gas. Under the new system, collected scraps will be turned into compost that helps area farms and vineyards flourish. The city eventually wants to eliminate waste at landfills by 2020.

Awesome. Houston offers a separate compost pickup, but it’s voluntary and frankly I doubt more than one person out of ten is familiar with it. When the city decides to get serious about increasing recycling rates and cutting down on its landfill use, this is the kind of approach I want it to take. Speaking as someone who has a compost pile in his backyard, the marginal effort it takes to separate this kind of trash from the rest is miniscule. There’s no reason we couldn’t do this, and no reason I can think of that we shouldn’t. Via The American Scene.