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Mayor Lee to tackle Uber, Lyft traffic congestion through pilot program

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Mayor Lee is proposing a pilot program in which ride-hail companies like Uber and Lyft would share more traffic data with The City. (Jessica Christian/S.F. Examiner)

In a first for San Francisco, Mayor Ed Lee is proposing a data exchange between The City and ride-hail companies Uber and Lyft to tackle traffic safety and congestion, Lee told the San Francisco Examiner in an interview at City Hall on Friday.

“I’ve been in favor of people getting the rides that they need,” Lee said. “What I’m not in favor of is the extent to which that compromises safety on the streets.”

Double parked Uber cars, swarms of Lyft cars jockeying downtown streets — such are the growing pains of the ever-booming ride hail industry, as tech giants Uber and Lyft increasingly become integral to San Francisco’s transit infrastructure.

In turn for Uber and Lyft providing The City with data describing where their cars drive, the mayor will propose a pilot program — which is still in early stages, he said — that may develop ways to make pick-ups and drop-offs smoother for Uber and Lyft drivers.

The details of the pilot program will be established based on data from Uber and Lyft.

“We never want to see a double parked vehicle,” for instance, he said.

A few possible solutions Lee mentioned include offering driver training programs, or legal use of now-prohibited city curb space — like some painted curbs — for Uber and Lyft drivers to pick up and drop off riders.

“It could be a whole area where we say, we need less vehicles in that area” on certain city corridors, and for city agencies to figure out alternative routes that work better for all involved, Lee said.

San Franciscans “get incensed on the double parking, you get incensed on stopping traffic, you get incensed at the same person going around the block,” Lee said. “But I’m not one to make policy from just the emotional expressions that are given to me. I actually want some data and some science.”

He continued, “What I’m going to be proposing very quickly is to have several agencies work with my office and the [ride-hail] companies to really look at their data,” he said. “Everything from where people stop, to congestion at intersections, [to] where all the pick-ups are.”

In 2014, Lee and the Board of Supervisors committed San Francisco to the Vision Zero initiative, a pledge to reduce traffic-related deaths to zero by 2024. Lee cited that initiative when discussing the need to curb Uber- and Lyft-related traffic incidents.

The City has no access to data showing how often Uber or Lyft drivers cause traffic collisions, or gum up city streets with traffic, save for the tremendous growth of these vehicles locally. Treasurer’s Office data first reported by the Examiner last year shows more than 45,000 active Uber and Lyft drivers in San Francisco.

But GPS data from these vehicles is under proverbial lock and key by Uber, Lyft and their regulators, the California Public Utilities Commission, citing concerns over how competition could use such data. That’s a problem, Lee said.

The Mayor’s Office later elaborated that the pilot would likely be corridor or neighborhood specific, and will prompt outreach to neighborhoods and businesses so they can weigh in.

The success of this pilot, the office said, is based on cooperation of all involved. Notably, San Francisco has little regulatory ability to compel the sharing of this data.

Lyft was clued into the potential pilot program last week, and said it may be too early to discuss specifics yet.

“We appreciate the mayor’s leadership on these issues and look forward to further discussions with his office on their upcoming initiatives,” wrote Lyft spokesperson Chelsea Harrison in a statement to the Examiner.

Lee said he plans to reach out to Uber this week, and Uber has previously said their service reduces car use, which reduces traffic. Uber provides a heat map of its vehicles to governments, called “Movement,” but Lee said The City needs more specific data.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency echoed those sentiments. “These are preliminary discussions and details are still being worked out so it would be too early to comment,” Paul Rose, an SFMTA spokesperson, wrote to the Examiner.

These are notably strained times between San Francisco and Uber, as the City Attorney’s Office just last week announced a lawsuit against Uber to compel it to share driver information, and the SFMTA and San Francisco International Airport regularly file legal missives with the CPUC to compel regulations that Uber and Lyft oppose.

Still, the mayor said he does not want to play “the blame game.”

“I want to hold people accountable to what we’re trying to do without the emotion of blame, or value of what I think about their company,” he said.

That does not mean, however, that Lee is not willing to play hard-ball with ride-hail companies or jitney services like Chariot, which offers shuttle service on certain routes throughout The City.

“I’m not at all afraid of telling the [ride-hails] or Chariots, ‘You’ve got to change your practices,’” he said.

“And if you don’t, we’re going to hold you accountable.”

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