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SF transit agency scales back regulations for cab drivers

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The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency is scaling back taxi regulations to level the playing field with ride-hail companies. (Jessica Christian/2014 S.F. Examiner)
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More than 40 pages of crossed-out sentences represent the hope of taxis in San Francisco in their fight against ride-hail giants like Uber and Lyft.

The pages are all regulations governing the taxi industry in The City, many of which were dashed, reformed, repealed and otherwise curtailed Tuesday in an effort by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency to help taxi companies become more nimble against their less-regulated tech competitors.

The newly streamlined taxi regulations, approved by the SFMTA Board of Directors on Tuesday, keep safety in mind, said Kate Toran, head of SFMTA taxi services.

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“And,” she told the board, the newly winnowed regulations may “allow the [taxi] industry the ability to innovate and compete in this new paradigm.”

Many taxi industry veterans have for years complained that Uber and Lyft faced fewer regulations, offering an unfair playing field at a time when taxis are facing the toughest competition in modern history. In California, Uber and Lyft are called Transportation Network Companies, and regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission.

But the CPUC has initiated few of the SFMTA’s suggested regulations, allowing Uber and Lyft to enjoy less restrictive criminal background checks of drivers, an unlimited number of for-hire cars on the roads and far less stringent regulations of many sorts, according to critics from the taxi industry.

Now, the SFMTA has taken the opposite route. Seeing the hesitance of the CPUC to enact strict Uber and Lyft regulations, the SFMTA is loosening regulations around taxis.

The newly shaved regulations are numerous, including no longer requiring taxi drivers to change shifts on taxi company property or for a taxi company to be located in San Francisco, as well eliminating restrictions that prevent some spare vehicles from being used, and reforming of taxi meters to allow technological innovation.

Other changes are targeted at drivers, like an elimination of some application hurdles for drivers who left the taxi industry but returned within a short period.

That particular requirement may be especially important as taxi companies, like Luxor Cab, struggle to find drivers, as the San Francisco Examiner previously reported

“What we’re seeing is that a lot of drivers have left the industry, still may drive in the for-hire field, and may want to come back to the taxi industry,” Toran said.

Not everyone in the taxi industry felt the deregulation of taxis would make a difference. Hansu Kim, co-owner of Flywheel Taxi (formerly DeSoto Cab Co.), said that for a long time, taxi cabs were limited in number so drivers could make a living.

Now, he said, with nearly 45,000 locally operating Uber and Lyft drivers on the road, it’s hard for anyone — tech driver or taxi driver — to make money.

“There’s no strong meat on the bones here,” Kim said of the deregulation proposal. “The income has been really poor for everybody because you have tens of thousands of cars on the road.”

But regulating the number of Uber and Lyft cars lies solely in the control of the CPUC — and so far, they haven’t shown any indication they will limit the number of ride-hail vehicles on California roads.

The deregulation also has one more — perhaps surprising — critic: Former Mayor Willie Brown, who is known locally to take taxis most places he goes, and he also created The City’s Taxi Task Force in 1997.

Speaking to the Examiner, Brown said he feels the taxi industry should not “dumb down to their level.”

“They rely upon technology to give them direction,” Brown said of Uber and Lyft. “And believe me, there is not one GPS that factors in construction or detours, and in San Francisco, that’s a daily challenge.”

In Brown’s mind, there’s only one set of drivers who best know how to navigate San Francisco: cabbies.

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