“Shared scooters/bikes are an exciting part of the future of urban mobility . . . If we’re serious about reducing congestion, as we should be, we need to make it easy for people to choose non-car options.”
— California State Senator Scott Wiener, via Twitter
Former San Francisco supervisor and current California state Senator Scott Wiener is a big fan of scooters and bikes. Along with building densely along transit corridors, Wiener believes getting people out of cars is the best way to reduce San Francisco’s mind-boggling traffic. There’s no doubt we need to take drastic measures — San Francisco ranks as the third most congested city in the United States, and the fifth worst in the world — but there’s a major flaw in Wiener’s theory: Rideshare companies Uber and Lyft, which he supports as transit alternatives, are to blame for most of that traffic.
In an October 2017 report, the San Francisco County Transportation Authority, which is responsible for traffic congestion management in San Francisco, analyzed changes in vehicle volume between the years 2010 and 2016, noting about 50 percent of the increase can be traced to the launch of ridesharing firms, primarily Lyft and Uber. The impact is especially significant during the evening commute, when rideshares make up 60 percent of the increase. District 3, which includes North Beach, is disproportionately affected, with Uber and Lyft causing a whopping 70 percent of area traffic. In April 2018, District 3 Supervisor Aaron Peskin, one of the few legislators to openly criticize the companies, proposed a ballot measure that would have asked voters to tax rideshare gross receipts at rates up to 0.975 percent. After weeks of negotiations, Lyft and Uber agreed to pay taxes on net fares — not because they’re good citizens, but because the arrangement will result in less taxation than the ballot initiative (and it helps them avoid a nasty battle in the court of public opinion on their home turf).
While any attempt to rein in Uber and Lyft should be applauded, the new tax will likely do little to alleviate congestion. According to another SFCTA study, rideshares rack up more than 170,000 trips covering more than half a million miles every weekday in San Francisco, making more than 2.4 million pick-ups and drop-offs combined per week. During peak time, from 6:30 to 7 p.m., 5,700 Uber and Lyft vehicles are circling city streets. (There are an estimated 45,000 rideshare drivers working in San Francisco.) In his official response, Wiener continued to defend the rideshare behemoths, stating they “provide significant benefits by allowing people to live without cars or to drive less often.” Wiener’s stance is ludicrous, of course, because those people are simply getting out of one car and into another (while lining the pockets of Lyft and Uber).
OUR LEADERS CONTINUE DOING NOTHING
As a San Francisco supervisor in 2015, Wiener was the only government representative to attend Uber’s five-year anniversary party and Lyft’s anniversary happy hour. “I was invited and I went to both,” he said, declaring the companies “indispensable to the growth of the city.” What he didn’t mention was his outsized role, as then-chair of the SFCTA, in ironing out the rocky relationships both firms had with the city from the start. When asked at the time what San Francisco would look like without Uber and Lyft, Wiener said, “I think we would have much worse congestion and parking problems because more people would feel the need to have their car. . . .”
Despite a growing pile of evidence that rideshare companies have a negative impact on traffic congestion in the San Francisco Bay Area, Wiener still supports both companies. As for California’s representatives in the nation’s capital, they’ve been eerily silent on Uber and Lyft, from Dianne Feinstein to Barbara Boxer to Boxer’s successor, Kamala Harris. In fact, Harris has a personal rideshare connection — in October 2017, her brother-in-law Tony West announced he was taking a position as Uber’s general counsel. In the off chance Harris decided to work on legislation restricting the number of rideshare vehicles, it would make for awkward holiday dinner table conversation at the very least.
IT’S UP TO YOU NEW YORK, NEW YORK
In my column “Drive Time” (November 2017) I advocated limiting the number of rideshare vehicles via digital versions of taxi medallions. California officials pointed out that, for some absurd reason, it’s illegal to set limits on Uber and Lyft. Less than one year after my column ran, New York implemented their own version of digital medallions, becoming the nation’s first city to halt new vehicle licenses for rideshare services and to cap the number of current for-hire vehicles. (Surpirse! Uber is suing.) Back in California, the inaction remains palpable. As one of his last acts in office, Gov. Jerry Brown refused to turn over control of rideshare companies to local jurisdictions, leaving it in the hands of the California Public Utilities Commission, a beleaguered agency that also regulates our troubled energy and gas companies. Even the organization’s president argued they should give up authority of rideshares to better oversee the energy sector, but Brown wasn’t listening. As for our newly elected governor Gavin Newsom, rideshare traffic jams don’t appear to be a priority in his Golden State vision, so expect more of the same.
PRESSURES OF WALL STREET DON’T BODE WELL FOR THE FUTURE
On March 18, Lyft plans to launch the roadshow for its initial public offering, where experts expect it will be valued at $25 billion. Archrival Uber is set to follow, with a valuation of $120 billion. Those valuations are even more stunning considering both companies are hemorrhaging money, with Uber notching losses of $1.07 billion and the much smaller Lyft losing $254 million, just in the third quarter of 2018. Once Uber and Lyft trade the losses of private venture capitalists for the losses of public shareholders the pressure to perform will be immense, forcing both to cut even more corners while throwing even more woefully unqualified and under-scrutinized drivers on the road (which, if you’ve ever hailed a rideshare, may seem like a feat).
It’s time for lawmakers to take control over the regulation of Uber and Lyft, implement digital medallions, and limit the number of rideshare vehicles allowed on our streets. If we don’t get a handle on them soon, getting around town will go from difficult to impossible.