“When a group of USF graduate students released a study on local transportation in May, the headlines blared: Students Propose Free Muni! SF Must Eliminate Muni Fares, Say Students! Yes: Free public transit was one part of our recommendations. But it was only a small part, and the news media coverage focusing on that suggestion alone ignored the much broader – and more nuanced – conclusions of our report.
The study started off looking at Uber and Lyft, the so-called Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) which are having a profound impact on the San Francisco Bay Area. To begin exploring those impacts, 22 graduate students in the Masters in Urban and Public Affairs Program launched a 3-month study focusing on driver experience, Uber/Lyft lobbying practices in San Francisco, and best practices for policy-makers to respond. The preliminary findings will serve to inform the direction of a larger study to be managed by San Francisco LAFCo that will soon be underway.
The research, unsurprisingly, reveals that driver experience varies. However, many troubling trends stood out from the survey and interviews which deserve further investigation.
Many drivers reported feeling that Uber/Lyft will do little to protect or support them. Drivers told of experiences with assault or wrongful deactivation, and they say the companies did not adequately respond. Uber/Lyft’s decision to classify drivers as “independent contractors” and the consequences of this type of “gig” employment is another area in need of greater discussion.
The research looked into the influence of lobbying by these companies on both local and state government, as well as merchant associations. A few weeks ago, the state Assembly voted 74-1 for legislation that would override the ability of cities like San Francisco to regulate bike-share and e-scooters, likely precluding local public safety and equity rules. Uber and Bird are supporters of this legislation, continuing the trend of these companies stepping over cities that seek to regulate them by lobbying states to countermand local regulations.
These are broad, crucial issues — but when we released our report, media coverage focused almost entirely on Muni fares. Our critical analysis of the labor, political, economic and environmental aspects of this emergent economy were largely ignored. We cannot sufficiently address an issue when we choose to focus on part of a problem rather than the whole.
Our Muni fare discussion was only a smaller subset of a recommendation to implement congestion pricing paired with investment and prioritization of public transit. Free Muni? Sure, but 1) that requires identifying a funding source – like congestion pricing — and 2) even if Muni were free it needs to be reliable, expeditious and inviting.
Responding to Uber/Lyft requires some creative strategies given the multifaceted aspects of these issues, and that San Francisco is prohibited from directly regulating them. The body charged with regulating them, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC), has often been more of an obstacle than an ally — refusing to share transportation data and millions in revenue. Our research led us to six primary recommendations:
1) Congestion pricing to reduce traffic and fund transit improvements while reducing/eliminating transit fares.
2) A comprehensive curb-management strategy. Ours is archaic and a passenger loading zone can cost an individual/business thousands of dollars.
3) Development of a co-operative app alternative to Uber/Lyft, or greater support of taxis (a crucial part of our accessible transportation network).
4) Safe food delivery recommendations.
5) Recommendations to improve safety for ride-hail drivers.
6) A Board of Supervisors Resolution in support of proposed changes to State labor law (Assembly Bill 5), that would codify a relatively simple test for determining whether a worker was an employee or an independent contractor. Thus far no local government has filed their support for AB-5, providing San Francisco’s leaders an opportunity to lead the way.
We need to also be thinking of related issues in the near future. We don’t know when autonomous vehicle technology will be commercially viable, but it is almost undoubtedly in our future. It will be critical to understand how this changing landscape will impact the future of work, our streets, and our communities. One driver-leader we interviewed from Gig Workers Rising spoke directly on the labor implications of on-demand work, especially amidst changing technology when she said: “Uber and Lyft drivers are the next miners…the writing is on the wall.”
How do we as a city, and a nation, and a society handle that change? Like much of what we discuss, it will require a range of solutions that go behind the simplistic headlines.”
Preston Kilgore, Sergio Martinez, and Winston Parsons are graduate students at the University of San Francisco’s Urban and Public Affairs program.