State Cracks Down on Ridesharing Services Again Over Questionable Policies

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Over the last few months, San Francisco car-hire start-ups have been giddily plowing into new markets and introducing a raft of new services. Facing stiffer competition from SideCar and Lyft, Uber unveiled its own ride-share service, UberX in April.

"We're seeing a ... policy of non-enforcement in a number of cities," founder Travis Kalanick announced in a telephone press conference. He said that Uber conveniently equated "non-enforcement" with "tacit approval."

But tacit approval may no longer be forthcoming in the start-ups' home town of San Francisco, where an ongoing California Public Utilities Commission proceeding has required various ride-share companies to produce proof that they're actually playing by the rules. Although the CPUC granted Uber and Lyft a temporary reprieve via a settlement in January, an administrative law judge has now asked them to produce sealed copies of both their umbrella and excess liability insurance policies, as well as proof that they are providing worker's compensation for employees, as required by the California Insurance Code.

The order affects all start-ups that the CPUC has identified as New Online-Enabled Transportation Services (NOETS), a clunky name it coined because many of them object to the term "rideshare."

Administrative law judge Robert Mason issued the ruling as part of an ongoing rule-making process that will ultimately decide whether Uber, Lyft, SideCar, Tickengo, TransForm, and InstantCab have to abide by the same rules that govern traditional taxis. The start-ups have long argued that they hew to a different model more based in the tech industry than the transportation sphere. Uber's general manager Ilya Abyzov insists, for instance, that the company's employees are its engineers, and the drivers are merely hired guns. Thus, he said, the company had no obligation to produce evidence of workers comp for anyone operating an UberX vehicle.

Lyft spokeswoman Erin Simpson said, similarly, that while Lyft certainly has workers comp for the employees who handle marketing, engineering, and development, "that doesn't extend to people who use the driving platform." Both Uber and Lyft maintain that the excess liability policies they've already submitted should be enough to comply with the current agreement -- at least until permanent rules are established. SideCar still hasn't found a middle ground with the commission, leaving it on the hook for a $20,000 citation foisted on all rideshare startups in November.

Judge Mason didn't return calls to say whether or not he'd accept the independent contractor defense and absolve Uber and Lyft of the workers comp requirement. Yet other parties have also weighed in, expressing concern over what could happen if rideshare start-ups really are tasked with handling San Francisco's transportation needs.

In a motion submitted on April 25 -- just a couple weeks before Mason's May 10 ruling -- Melissa Kasnitz of the Center for Accessible Technology asked whether the startups are equipped to handle disabled passengers -- a group that includes wheelchair users, people with service animals, and folks who need screen-readers to use an app on their phones. Such customers are traditionally harder to serve, she says, and they wouldn't be well-suited to an industry that relies on rating systems, wherein drivers and passengers freely evaluate each other.

"These services talk a lot about rating [systems] and how that enhances their services," Kasnitz said in an interview. "But we're concerned that people with disabilities might get a poor rating -- and that, for discriminatory reasons, it might be more difficult for that person to get a ride in the future."

Abyzov said that Uber has taken pains to make its service more accessible, but that it's been stymied by the SFMTA, which won't allow the company to accept payments with paratransit debit cards. Lyft punted questions over to its legal counsel, who has yet to respond.

The startups have until May 31 to submit filings to Mason, at which point discussions about accessibility and other regulatory snafus will likely pick up steam. One thing is certain, though: If Uber, Lyft, and SideCar become the default mode of transit in San Francisco, they might wind up making a variety of concessions. High-tech razzle-dazzle may ultimately take a backseat to the unglamorous chore of serving everyone, and treating every worker fairly.





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13 comments
trueblood
trueblood

cab drivers in this city make it REALLY hard to root for them. i walk, run, bike, and drive around sf very often, and there's not a day that goes by where i don't witness a cab driver do something dangerous, aggressive, or outright shitty on the road.

Ragazzu
Ragazzu

Statistically, cab drivers get in fewer accidents--it'a a simple matter of experience. Yesterday, I saw a Lyft driver going eastbound on Mission try to make a right onto Seventh that was one-way coming up. As everyone honked, he backed up then proceeded to barrel through the red light on Mission to more honking.

Think about it; 2,000 SF taxis running 24/7/365. It's a wonder you don't see more of them in accidents--but that's experience.

Still don't know whether the biker survive this Lyft accident at Lombard and Buchanan.

sebraleaves
sebraleaves topcommenter

Treat them like all other public/private transit systems. Require a chaperone driver's license, inspection of vehicles, and proper insurance to start with.

philflash
philflash

May 12th  2:30 AM, a Lyft  flies down Franklin Street in San Francisco. The wrong way! Boom, crashes into oncoming traffic at Pine. Being a cool druggy doesn't make a professional driver.

Rebelos
Rebelos

All DeSoto Cab drivers are independent contractors and we provide them with workers comp. These "apps" are shams. A gypsy cab is a gypsy cab regardless if it's owned by an unsavory individual or a venture capitalist.

PhilsFaveLyftDriver
PhilsFaveLyftDriver

@philflash you sound very unbiased. I like the fact that just because one lyft driver got in an accident that automatically makes them a "cool druggy"

dongeous
dongeous

@philflash So how about those two cabbies I saw slammed into each other on Franklin Street about two months ago, one of whom thought it would be a good idea to roll into the intersection a bit early, and the other who thought it would be a good idea to run the red light just a little bit? Real professionals, right? 

Accidents happen. One driver's mistake does not make an entire company or industry. Cabbies crash plenty, and drive far more recklessly than I've seen Lyfts or Ubers drive. 

AriGold
AriGold

@philflash The fact that it was a Lyft driver is absolutely irrelevant. It could have been any car/any driver  but you are highlighting the detail that it was a Lyft driver.

neaterthanvelveeta
neaterthanvelveeta

@Rebelos Precisely what I'd expect the GM of DeSoto to say. When was the last time any legacy cab company worked to keep my business? Services like Uber and Lyft have done what the cabs have failed to do by not just driving safely, but also providing customer service, something which most cabbies I've encountered in the 2 years I've lived here clearly don't fathom.

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