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With 45,000 Uber and Lyft drivers, it’s time for digital medallions

A year ago, San Francisco Examiner reporter Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez sent shockwaves with one big number: 45,000. According to data he received from the San Francisco Treasurer’s Office, that was the estimated number of Uber and Lyft drivers operating in the city. That was up from around 37,000 drivers six months prior (for reference, there are around 1,800 taxicabs).

I experienced the effect of all those ride shares on the road last month while trying to get from Oak and Webster Streets to Third and Mission Streets. From the time I hit Mission, it took more than 45 minutes to reach my destination. As I sat snarled in traffic, I noted nearly every vehicle around me had either an Uber or a Lyft sticker, or both, in the window — and most were carrying just one passenger. As it turns out, ride-share drivers aren’t just clogging the streets, they’re also violating the law far more frequently than the rest of us. According to the San Francisco Police Department, Uber and Lyft received 1,723 out of 2,656 citations in the downtown area between April 1 and June 30, 2017 — that’s almost two thirds of congestion-related traffic violations.

Another study by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority found an estimated 5,700 ride-share vehicles make 170,000 trips within city limits every day — the equivalent of 570,000 miles. The report discovered, not surprisingly, that ride share drivers are concentrated in the most congested areas, like Union Square, the Financial District, and SoMa (other neighborhoods, like the Marina, show higher weekend usage). While city officials do everything in their power to get people to ditch their cars, they silently allow 45,000 Uber and Lyft drivers to circle city blocks like sharks in seal-infested waters.

I am a long and vocal critic of San Francisco’s blatant hatred of personal vehicles, so it makes me livid that this car-hating city has such a laissez-faire attitude toward ride-hailing firms. In the latest display of thinly veiled anticar legislation, the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is rolling out “demand-responsive pricing,” that will automatically hike parking rates in popular areas as high as $8 an hour, depending on space availability, at both meters and garages. Of course, our leaders always deny their disdain for cars. “We want to see more people using public transit,” they say. But let’s be honest, some people are never going to hop aboard a Muni bus. That means every time city officials take away 20 parking spaces to make room for a new bike lane or raise meter fees above the price of a combo meal at In-n-Out Burger, it just drives more San Franciscans into the waiting arms of Uber and Lyft.

LONDON CRACKS DOWN

This past September, ride-share behemoth Uber met its match in Transport for London, which oversees the city’s subways, buses, and taxicabs, when the agency declined to renew its license to operate. Transport for London deemed Uber not sufficiently “fit and proper” — a British benchmark applied across various industries to ensure they meet requirements in their field. The designation holds considerable weight in what is Uber’s largest European market. “Uber’s approach and conduct demonstrate a lack of corporate responsibility in relation to a number of issues which have potential public safety and security implications,” Transport for London said in a statement.

Dara Khosrowshahi, who took the helm from Uber’s troubled founder Travis Kalanick (or as I liked to call him, Uber’s Child Executive Officer), displayed the same smarmy arrogance as his predecessor, tweeting, “Dear London: we r far from perfect but we have 40k licensed drivers and 3.5mm Londoners depending on us. Pls work w/us to make things right” (Uber is appealing the ruling, and the company’s U.K. boss, Jo Bertram, abruptly resigned).

To become a taxi driver in London requires years of rigorous studying to pass an examination known as “The Knowledge,” where hopefuls must prove they have memorized the city’s intricate 25,000 streets and every business and landmark on them. It’s certainly not that tough in San Francisco, but the city does require more stringent background and safety checks for taxi drivers than ride-share firms do for their contractors (fingerprinting, drug testing, providing a 10-year printed record from the DMV). Taxi candidates must also take classes and pass a test, and they must obtain a medallion.

MEDALLIONS STILL IN DEMAND

You might assume that Uber and Lyft put a dent in the sale of medallions — the government-issued right to operate a single cab — but some drivers have waited two decades or more, and still jump at the chance. The price, set by the SFMTA, is $250,000. The long waits and high cost keep the number of drivers relatively low. That got me thinking. Maybe it’s time to put the SFMTA in charge of Uber and Lyft, where they could issue digital medallions limiting the number of ride-share vehicles at any given time. I’ve heard of people coming from as far away as San Diego to spend the weekend picking up passengers in San Francisco. With digital medallions, you could prioritize city residents, allowing them to earn a better living. You could also reward drivers with the most experience and the highest safety records. With digital medallions, the SFMTA could limit the total number of ride-share vehicles daily closer to the number of taxi cabs, say 2,000, which would remove 3,700 cars from our battered and congested roads.

You might be thinking this will just cause more people to drive themselves, but a recent comprehensive working paper by UC Davis — which looked at 4,000 users in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, D.C. between 2014 and 2016 — contradicts that theory. Davis transportation researchers concluded that absent a ride-sharing option, between 50 and 60 percent of trips either wouldn’t have been made at all, or would have been made by transit, bike, or foot. Combining that data with the empty vehicles circling in search of fares, and it’s clear that Uber and Lyft are boosting the vehicle miles traveled in cities tremendously. The only way to resolve this mess is by taking drastic measures to remove excess ride-share vehicles from the streets, and that brings us back to my idea for digital medallions. If the city can create demand-responsive parking, this should be a snap.

Of course, Uber and Lyft, kicking and screaming like the selfish, petulant children they are, will oppose such a measure, to which I say, “Cry me a river.” If oh-so-polite London can stand up to ride share companies, so can we.

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E-mail: susan@marinatimes.com. Follow the Marina Times on Twitter @TheMarinaTimes and like us on Facebook @MarinaTimes.