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Technology & Entrepreneurship

Proposed Changes to Ride-For-Hire Look To Keep Uber And Lyft

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Paul Flahive
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Mayor Taylor questions city staff as Taxicab drivers quietly protest extending a deal with Uber and Lyft

Speaking Wednesday to the San Antonio City Council, Assistant Director of the San Antonio Police Department Steve Baum said he thought the third-party background checks that Uber and Lyft provide for their drivers are safe enough and that mandating fingerprint background checks - like with taxi - wasn't necessary.

"When we established the system for the cab drivers, in the late '70s early '80s, that was the only way to do it. The only way to get someone's criminal histories was you needed someone's fingerprints. You needed to put them into the national database to find them," said Baum. 

City Council votes next Thursday on regulation changes for ride-hailing companies, taxicabs and limousines. Extending the pilot program for ride-hailing companies Uber and Lyft and a controversial measure allowing for drivers to opt-into a fingerprint background check could determine the future of whether the companies remain.

SAPD recommended maintaining the current optional 10 fingerprint registration policy for drivers of ride-hailing companies, which taxi companies and some City Council members have called unsafe.

Uber and Lyft have left other cities including San Antonio before for mandatory fingerprint programs. The companies have repeatedly made the argument that they shouldn't be regulated like traditional cab companies. Uber and Lyft didn't return emails to comment on this story.

Baum said the city spent $30,000 last year on a marketing campaign to entice Uber and Lyft drivers to take the city up on its free fingerprint program. The majority of drivers didn't. This fact riled District 9's Joe Krier who said he felt a little misled.

"I was under the impression that a serious effort would be conducted and that the app would reflect those drivers on it, so that when you open the Uber or Lyft app you would be able to communicate that you only wanted to use fingerprinted drivers," said Krier. 

He decided not to support any program that didn't include a credible plan to get more drivers fingerprinted. Krier, as one of five council members who voted for the initial pilot program, was now a deciding vote on an evenly split council. But he appears to have gotten what he wanted.

According to city staff, Uber and Lyft have now committed to actively encouraging their drivers to participate in the program through quarterly reminders and in-app marketing when drivers sign on. In addition, Tech Bloc - a local organization trying to grow San Antonio's technology industry - has committed to raising an undetermined amount of money to fund a program that gets drivers fingerprinted.

Tech Bloc has consistently said recruiting top talent requires ensuring amenities like ride hailing companies young people use are available. Tech Bloc CEO David Heard confirmed they will raise money for incentives, help the city build and promote any program.

"I have virtually zero confidence that the take rate is going to be much bigger than it is today. The only way we are going to accomplish that is to make it mandatory," said District 6 Council Member Ray Lopez voicing his opposition to extending the optional fingerprinting. Lopez is one of several council members who call the current system unsafe.

Currently, no Uber or Lyft drivers in San Antonio have been convicted of any serious crimes, though SAPD continues its investigation into the alleged rape by an Uber driver from September of this year. 

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SAPD Chief William McManus said San Antonio saw a significant drop in fatal alcohol-related deaths in 2016 as compared to 2015 . Uber and Lyft suspended operations in 2015 due to increased regulations. There were nearly half as many fatalities.

Taxicab spokesman Robert Gonzales isn't swayed by those statistics and said this issue was about big money influencing city policy.

"The police department and city staff are bending to the powers of Uber and their money, so is the mayor. I hope they step up to the plate when something happens."

The city's taxi companies have waged an organized campaign for months to derail any deal. They argue the deal is unfair and they have seen their business suffer as a result of the competition. The airport reported a 16 percent drop for taxi fares in the month of September. 

Other regulation changes before council next Thursday will reduce licensing fees and loosen other regulations for taxi companies.