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Uber, Lyft focus on green bills, not green cars

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Drivers for Lyft, Uber and other ride-hail companies have been able to dodge San Francisco’s fuel-efficiency regulations for taxis, which were adopted by The City in 2008. (Jeff Chiu/2013 AP)

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Joy to the world, a climate agreement has come. After two decades, nearly 200 countries, including the United States, finally committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions at the United Nations conference in Paris. It’s hard to imagine much will change in San Francisco. The City already boasts many successful climate initiatives. But will tech giants Uber and Lyft have to green their rides?

In November, Green Space investigated the environmental impact of ride-hail companies. Although The City adopted fuel-efficient regulations for taxis in 2008, Uber and Lyft have skirted the same standards for their drivers. Now, San Francisco’s green taxis are being replaced with whatever cars ride-hail drivers choose, and the climate and San Franciscans’ health is suffering.

After the San Francsico Examiner published my article, I reached out to Uber and Lyft. I hoped they would see the benefit of offering passengers a green option. (Wouldn’t a green mustache look nice?) But I was wrong.

Although ride-hail vehicles must meet strict year, make and model requirements, the companies said it would detract from the freedom to add fuel efficiency to the list. Besides, Uber and Lyft told me, drivers would choose hybrids and electric cars anyway to save money on gas.

But this isn’t always true. I spoke with Jeffrey Fang, a San Francisco Lyft driver who picked me up in his 2002 Acura. He said resale value is also an important cost to consider.

“Compared to a new hybrid car, I might lose out on the cost of gas, but will not suffer the bigger cost of depreciating resale value,” Fang explained. “In my situation, it is cheaper to continue driving my old Acura than buying a five-figure new hybrid.”

Of course, an older hybrid is an option, but it may not have the room, horsepower and features a driver needs to feel comfortable. Larger and more luxurious cars also allow drivers to make more money working for one of Uber and Lyft’s premium services. Fang told me he plans to buy a minivan, so he can drive for Lyft Plus.

I can’t fault Fang for making the better economic choice like I can’t fault Uber and Lyft for focusing on profits. If a green option doesn’t provide green bills, why should companies care? It’s the job of the government to care about the greater good, not Uber and Lyft.

Fortunately, our city, state and federal governments, as well as governments around the world, are now committed to caring about climate change; it’s just a matter of time before fuel-efficiency standards become stricter. Because Uber and Lyft aren’t forward-thinking enough to green their fleets ahead of inevitable regulations, the California Legislature has an opportunity to be a climate leader once again.

The Legislature should require the California Public Utilities Commission to regulate ride-hail companies’ fuel efficiency. The CPUC already tells investor-owned utilities what percentage of their energy must come from renewables. But without express legislative authority, it won’t tell Uber and Lyft to use fuel-efficient vehicles.

San Francisco’s state legislators should want to give the CPUC the authority it needs. Besides creating the successful GoSolarSF program when he was The City’s Assessor-Recorder, Assemblymember Phil Ting also authored legislation allowing Uber and Lyft to provide on-demand carpooling.

“With climate change accelerating, we must take a hard look at transportation because it is the largest single source of emissions,” Ting said in a press release when the bill passed unanimously in the Assembly.

Assemblymember David Chiu also takes on corporations that don’t care about the greater good. As San Francisco supervisor, he authored legislation to reduce single-use plastic water bottles. Now, Chiu has invited his constituents to participate in his “There Ought to Be a Law Program.”

San Franciscans who care about our climate, want to protect our health and believe the CPUC should regulate Uber and Lyft’s fuel efficiency should contact Jennifer Kwart no later than Jan. 15, 2016, at jennifer.kwart@asm.ca.gov.

Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist, who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time.

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