City officials could seek more power to regulate ride-hails

New SF transit director will ‘enthusiastically’ pursue local Uber and Lyft regulations

San Francisco officials may finally seek increased regulatory power over Uber and Lyft.

Two leading transit officials have told the San Francisco Examiner that they’d seek support for state legislation to transfer some limited powers from state regulators to municipalities like San Francisco to tackle swelling traffic dilemmas caused by the ride-hail giants.

And one state lawmaker said he would support those efforts.

From the Marina District to the Mission, Uber and Lyft vehicles swarm during bar hours and morning commutes alike, shuttling San Franciscans around The City in a hurry.

But other residents are finding themselves increasingly stuck on Muni buses or impatiently grinding their teeth behind the wheel of their own cars, as a rising tide of ride-hails has led to gridlocked traffic, academic studies have found. And to San Franciscans riding bikes who see Uber drivers double-parking in their bike lanes, the mobile-phone based driving services are often a nuisance worthy of four-letter words.

Jeffrey Tumlin, the newly appointed director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency — who doesn’t start officially until this month — told the Examiner in a November interview that he will “enthusiastically” seek to wrest some regulatory control over ride-hails away from the state so cities can tackle Uber and Lyft.

Right now, “ride-hail is critically important, (but) it is also illegal for San Francisco to properly regulate ride-hail for the public good,” Tumlin said.

Indeed, in California, only state government can set laws regarding ride-hails like Uber and Lyft.

How many vehicles are allowed in a city, how deep or extensive driver criminal background checks may be, how often a ride-hail vehicle should be inspected and by whom, whether ride-hails are required to provide motorized wheelchair access or not, all these issues and more are the province of California regulators — not city governments.

San Francisco’s hands are tied by Lyft’s fuzzy pink car mustaches. That’s a roadblock Tumlin intends to clear.

“We need changes at the state public utility commission that delegates to municipalities the right range of authority in order to ensure ride-hail supports the public good and minimizes the public harm,” Tumlin said.

Such a measure may already be on the way. Supervisor Aaron Peskin represents North Beach and Chinatown on the Board of Supervisors, two neighborhoods have been heavily impacted by Uber and Lyft vehicle traffic. He also chairs the San Francisco County Transportation Authority board.

At a victory party for Proposition D, the Uber and Lyft tax, at Original Joe’s restaurant on November 11, Peskin told a crowd of transportation advocates that San Francisco state legislators are workshopping a bill to transfer some regulatory power over Uber and Lyft, a matter Peskin has long said has hampered San Francisco’s ability to wrangle ride-hails.

Assemblymember Phil Ting (D-San Francisco) was not available Monday before Thanksgiving for comment on whether he was indeed authoring such a bill. Ting has authored similar bills seeking to give San Francisco some regulatory powers, as he did with Lombard Street tolling authority, though it was vetoed.

Assemblymember David Chiu (D-San Francisco) gave a strong indication that he would support such a bill, were it authored.

“I would support a measure to give localities an ability to regulate ride-sharing,” Chiu told the Examiner in a statement. “San Francisco and other California cities are experiencing record congestion, and cities should have a say in addressing what’s happening on our streets.”

Not all members of San Francisco’s state delegation were immediately on board with local rules for ride-hails, however.

State Sen. Scott Wiener said he would talk with Tumlin, SFMTA’s new director, but that SFMTA’s history regulating taxis is an indicator that they may not handle ride-hail regulations in a way that would benefit San Franciscans.

“I’d have to see a specific proposal. And I’d have to talk to Jeff,” Wiener said. “Historically the (SFMTA) began trying to kill Uber and Lyft the minute they came into existence, and this is after decades of the (SFMTA) failing to create an acceptable cab system.”

Taxis, which SFMTA regulates, were notorious for not picking up passengers from far-flung San Francisco neighborhoods, which are often poorer, and for refusing to pick up riders of color. Even with that history, SFMTA has often found itself in stark opposition to Uber and Lyft’s existence.

“For me to support giving (SFMTA) more power I’d need to be reassured the agency’s attitude had changed,” Wiener said.

While Wiener has worries about SFMTA’s ability to regulate Uber and Lyft, a 2017 independent audit of the ride-hail industry’s state regulator, the California Public Utilities Commission, skewered the regulator for failing to regulate them adequately.

The audit, authored by Crowe Horwath LLP, a consultancy firm, specifically looked into the CPUC’s transportation enforcement branch, which is responsible for regulating rail (like Muni) and 11,000 other transportation providers in California — including Uber and Lyft.

That transportation enforcement branch, the report’s authors found, “has been constrained by many factors, most notably the lack of resources and staff, lack of effective leadership, and lack of visibility within the CPUC. For various reasons, the CPUC has not prioritized its transportation program, over time leading to TEB’s decline in terms of its visibility, importance, and effectiveness, and ultimately hindering its ability to ensure public safety.”

CPUC was not meeting its mandates to regulate transportation in California, the report concluded.

State lawmakers have until February 21, 2020 to submit new legislation.