That’s the newest estimate of the ever-growing number of Uber and Lyft drivers who operate in San Francisco, based on data from the San Francisco Treasurer’s Office provided to the San Francisco Examiner.
The 45,000 driver count is up from a possible 37,000 driver count from the Treasurer’s Office in April, and far surpasses the 1,800 or so taxi cabs roaming San Francisco streets.
It is also a number that hits home on one of The City’s most pernicious problems:
San Francisco traffic is snarled on a near daily basis, and scored third worst traffic congestion in the nation according to a 2016 report by transportation data firm INRIX.
But just how much this daily influx of tens of thousands of vehicles into San Francisco influences city traffic is an open question The City is seeking answers for — to no avail.
“It is an important question,” said Paul Rose, a spokesperson for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, which manages many of San Francisco’s streets.
“How will this many additional cars on our city streets impact congestion? How many of these cars are driving around with no one in them waiting for someone to call upon their services?” are open questions, Rose said.
“We have asked for data from the companies,” Rose said, “but they have not provided that information.”
The SFMTA regulates taxis but has no authority over Uber and Lyft, which are classified as Transportation Network Companies and regulated by the California Public Utilities Commission.
So SFMTA has no recourse to ask for data from Uber and Lyft to help determine traffic patterns and ease congestion on The City’s streets.
San Francisco Treasurer Jose Cisneros asked Uber and Lyft drivers active in San Francisco to register for business licenses in April. The Treasurer’s Office sent out 37,000 notices with a deadline to register Aug. 31, 2016, which was The City’s first concrete look at the number of local Uber and Lyft drivers.
But since those notices were sent, an additional 20,000 notices were sent to drivers, said Amanda Kahn Fried, policy and legislative manager for the Treasurer’s Office. That brings the total to 57,000 notices, though that may not be representative of all drivers, she said.
About 12,000 people responded that they are no longer driving for hire in San Francisco, had already registered or considered themselves employees, she said. About 20,000 have registered since the notices were first sent out.
There also may be some marginal amount of duplicate forms sent out, she added.
Still, that leaves 45,000 total forms sent out to who the Treasurer’s Office identified as active Uber or Lyft drivers who were not yet discounted. The Treasurer’s Office sent the forms using information provided by the two companies.
Susan Shaheen is co-director of UC Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center, and is a leading expert on Uber and Lyft. When the Examiner told Shaheen what the new count was, she said,“Wow. That’s big.”
When asked what can be gleaned from the number of new drivers, she said, “it’s complicated.”
Innovative products sometime spur new demand, she said. For instance, people who may not have visited a restaurant late at night may now do so, because ride-hails are cheap and convenient enough to make that trip possible.
That “latent demand” she said may be spurring ridership growth, which draws more drivers.
“It’s a use case fairly well documented in the Uber and Lyft market,” Shaheen said, “people are taking trips they may not have taken previously.”
When asked if the additional drivers added to The City’s congestion, she stressed there simply was not enough data to draw conclusions concerning Uber, Lyft and traffic in San Francisco.
Lyft did not return requests for comment, and Uber spokespeople referred the Examiner to studies showing Uber takes cars off the road in other cities.
Hansu Kim, co-owner of Flywheel Taxi, formerly DeSoto Cab Company, said The City’s congestion worsened as Uber and Lyft rose to prominence.
Kim said congestion caused by Lyft and Uber may be worsened because at certain times of day certain neighborhoods are more profitable to drive in, like downtown, the Mission and Fisherman’s Wharf, for instance.
Most troubling, Kim said, is Lyft and Uber drivers themselves may find it hard to make a living with so many for-hire vehicles on the road. Cities historically regulated the number of taxis on the road, he said, in part to ensure drivers made a living wage.
Perhaps, he added, that’s why as many as 12,000 drivers told the Treasurer’s Office they left Uber and Lyft since the first business license notices were sent out.
“These guys make very little money at the end of the day,” Kim said, and Uber and Lyft “also have incredible turnover when drivers realize that.”