San Antonio Uber Surges After Austin Exit

Though demand for ride services is said to be lower in San Antonio than in Austin, many Austin drivers are taking advantage of San Antonio’s more flexible regulations.

by Katherine Blunt, San Antonio Express-News / May 17, 2016
Laurence Brown works roughly 60 hours a week in San Diego as an independent contractor and drives a Prius that he leases from Uber's Xchange leasing program for $181 a week. (John Gastaldo/San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)

(TNS) -- Left reeling in the wake of Uber and Lyft’s abrupt withdrawal from Austin following a vote requiring drivers’ fingerprints, Daryl Faulks found himself out of a job and decided to venture south.

Faulks, who has been driving for the ride-hailing companies for about a year, has come to rely on the extra income to supplement the money he makes from teaching high school and selling real estate.

So when Austin voters decided May 7 to retain city regulations that Uber and Lyft opposed, he planned to drive to San Antonio the following Saturday to try and find business.

“I believe I have no choice,” he said. “I have a $581 car payment I’ve got to make, and I have other bills I have to pay.”

Unlike Austin, San Antonio made the fingerprint part of background checks optional for drivers, prompting the companies to resume operations here during a trial period.

Though demand for ride services is said to be lower in San Antonio than in Austin, Faulks is one of many Austin drivers taking advantage of the Alamo City’s more flexible regulations.

The rules here now are among the most permissive of big Texas cities. In Houston, where fingerprint checks are mandatory, Lyft pulled out and Uber is threatening to follow suit. And Dallas requires drivers to obtain permits based on city-conducted background checks without fingerprints.

In the coming months, San Antonio residents and elected officials will have to revisit the city’s interim rules as the nine-month pilot programs created for the upstarts come to an end.

“We’ll be reviewing all the information soon,” Mayor Ivy Taylor said. “I can say in general that I’m so pleased that we came up with a solution that made sense for San Antonio.”

Finding a Compromise

San Antonio is one of many cities nationwide grappling with how best to regulate the ride-hailing companies, relatively new services that typically don’t operate under the same regulations as traditional taxi companies.

Fueling that debate are some widely publicized incidents within the ride-hailing sector that have raised public safety concerns in recent months.

Some incidents have occurred in Texas. Late last year, Dallas police arrested a Lyft driver in the sexual assault of a woman he picked up. And a Houston Uber driver was arrested earlier this year on suspicion of sexual assault, but a grand jury decided he wouldn’t face charges.

After Uber and Lyft left San Antonio in early 2015, the City Council and staff worked to create a program that would make the optional fingerprint checks free for drivers. There have been no reported crimes involving the city’s Uber and Lyft drivers since the companies returned.

Some drivers have shown interest in the city’s checks. Nearly 180 drivers have applied for it, and of those, 120 completed the process. But those drivers can be difficult to find through the ride-hailing companies’ mobile apps.

Like Austin’s City Council, the San Antonio City Council initially approved rules that would have required the companies’ drivers to submit to fingerprint background checks like traditional taxi drivers, among other things. The companies, claiming the fingerprint checks would hamper the efficiency of their business models, left the city when the rules took effect in April 2015.

Both Lyft and Uber argue their background checks are just as effective as fingerprint checks.

Lyft uses a company called SterlingBackCheck that runs an applicant’s Social Security number and other identifying information through several criminal records databases to check for offenses within the last seven years. It also conducts a driving record check, a vehicle inspection and an in-person screening.

Uber uses a company called Checkr that conducts a similar process to check applicant’s criminal histories within the same time frame. It also checks an applicant’s driving record.

The Houston Uber driver who had been accused of sexual assault was found to have served 14 years in prison on a felony drug charge that occurred more than seven years before he began driving for Uber, the Houston Chronicle reported.

The ‘San Antonio’ Model

After months of controversy, Lyft agreed to the city’s pilot program in August and resumed operations here in December.

“With the pilot program, San Antonio has stepped up as a clear leader, paving the way for ridesharing as a modern transportation option and setting an example for other cities across the state,” Lyft spokeswoman Mary Caroline Pruitt said in an email last week. “We hope that other Texas cities like Austin and Houston look to it as a proof point that innovation and safety can go hand-in-hand.”

The council came to a similar agreement with Uber in October, prompting the company to immediately resume its services in the city. The company did not respond last week to several requests for comment.

A third ride-hailing company, Austin-based Get Me, started operating in San Antonio in January under the same sort of pilot program. Unlike Lyft and Uber, the company has encouraged its drivers to undergo the city’s additional check, but only nine have done so.

“We’ve been pretty straightforward from the beginning and we’ve been following the rules,” said Jonathan Laramy, the company’s co-founder.

Drivers who want to participate in the city’s background check can request an application through the San Antonio Police Department. They receive a voucher to get the fingerprint check for free through Morpho, a company with four locations in San Antonio. Those that successfully complete it receive an identification number from the city that they can upload to their profiles on the ride-hailing companies’ mobile apps.

“I think it’s going really well,” said Tech Bloc co-founder Lew Moorman, a former Rackspace president who campaigned for keeping the ride-hailing companies in town. “I think a number of drivers have taken up the option.”

Because the companies have declined to disclose how many drivers they have in San Antonio, it’s impossible to determine what percentage of drivers have opted to take the additional step. The majority of the 120 completed checks have been for Uber drivers, and the company said earlier this year it exceeded a goal of signing up 2,000 drivers in the city.

SAPD spokesman Sgt. Jesse Salame, said police have not received any reports of criminal conduct by Uber, Lyft or Get Me drivers, and no drivers have failed the city’s background check. He said the department will weigh in on the pilot programs when the City Council begins reviewing them next month.

District 1 Councilman Roberto Treviño, who oversaw the process of creating the programs, said he considers them a success.

“We’ve covered all the bases,” he said. “There are those who feel they need (drivers with additional checks), and those who feel they don’t, and now they have a choice.”

Finding a driver who has passed the city’s check can be tricky for riders, who are matched with the drivers nearest them through the companies’ mobile apps. If they’re matched with a driver who doesn’t have city’s ID number, they must cancel the ride and hail another through the app until they’re matched with someone who does.

There are locations throughout the city where the odds of being matched with a fingerprinted driver could be higher. The companies are required to supply pickup and dropoff data to the city every three months as part of the pilot program requirements, and Treviño said the airport and downtown are the most active areas.

But in areas farther from downtown where there are fewer drivers, the chances of finding a fingerprinted one are lower. Treviño said he thinks that will change once some version of the pilot programs become permanent.

“Once we codify this or move forward with a more long-term solution, I think we’re going to see a more balanced system there,” he said.

Rider Choice

For some riders, the odds of getting a fingerprinted driver don’t matter. Luke Hammond, a San Antonio resident who has been using Uber and Lyft since they starting operating in the city, said he doesn’t buy the argument that such checks are necessary for public safety.

“Nobody wants to ever argue about something when you invoke public safety,” he said. “The worst thing that’s ever happened to me is the car was less clean than I wanted it to be. I’ve never been concerned about my safety.”

Juan Cano, a real estate manager who lives in the Southtown area, uses Uber or Lyft for work and for fun. He said safety never has been a concern for him, but he understands why it might be for others.

“I don’t know what a fingerprint buys you,” he said. “Then again, I’m a former Marine, 31 years old, and I’m not scared of who I get in a car with, so my perspective is different.”

Marissa Villa, a resident who used Uber regularly after April’s hail storm totaled her car, said the safety of the service has crossed her mind. But convenience trumps that concern, she said, because calling for a ride and canceling it if a driver hasn’t passed the city’s check would be a hassle.

“I appreciate the efforts to try and make it as safe as possible, but it’s something people use because it’s easy,” she said. “Any extra steps would probably be too much for anyone who uses the app.”

Some drivers feel the same way. Alan Johnson, a San Antonio Uber and Lyft driver, opted to complete the city’s extra check only because he thought it would be easy. It ended up being more trouble that he thought it was worth — he said he waited for weeks for an appointment, wound up at the wrong place for the check and had trouble with the paperwork.

“At first I couldn’t wrap my head around why Uber and Lyft weren’t interested in going through that process, but boy, was I surprised,” he said. “It was a very unorganized system.”

When he finally got the city’s ID number, riders didn’t appear to notice it.

“I’ve yet to find anybody who has said anything about it, and I’ve done more than 6,000 rides,” he said.

Treviño said he doesn’t think some riders’ seeming ambivalence should influence the city’s ride-hailing policies.

“To do something or to respond to something because a certain group says they don’t care about something is not good governance,” he said. “It’s a policy that says we’ve got to think of everybody and offer a choice.”

Moving Forward

The city is hosting roundtable discussions to gather public input on its ride-hailing pilot programs. The City Council will consider the feedback in June and begin drafting permanent rules.

If it opts to keep the fingerprint checks optional, it will have to decide whether they ought to remain free for drivers. The city collected about $18,000 from each company participating in the pilot programs and uses that money to pay for the checks.

Traditional taxi drivers have to pay for their own checks, something many cabdrivers perceive as unequal. As part of its ride-hailing discussions, the City Council and staff plan to examine and possibly revise the code that regulates taxis and other for-hire vehicles.

“I think, comprehensively, staff will have to look at how we’re going to deal with ground transportation across the board and what other cities are doing as this issue continues to evolve across the country,” Deputy City Manager Erik Walsh said.

The patchwork ride-hailing regulations that have cropped up across Texas have moved state Sens. Charles Schwertner, R-Georgetown, and Robert Nichols, R-Jacksonville, to call for statewide regulations to make it easier for such companies to operate.

“It can be difficult for these types of companies to operate when there are different ordinances in cities that are adjacent to each other, like the urban areas of Dallas/Fort Worth,” said Nichols, who chairs the Senate Committee on Transportation.

State Rep. Joe Pickett, D-El Paso and chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said he expects to consider such legislation next session but would prefer to leave ride-hailing decisions to the cities.

“It’s more than just a fingerprint argument,” he said. “If it grows to be more than that and a problem that can’t be solved through local control, then the Legislature will get involved.”

Until new regulations are created, Austin drivers likely will continue to look south for extra cash. San Antonio driver Paul Castilla said the influx already has had a “huge impact” on the city and reduced business for local drivers.

“It’s going to cut into our piece of pie for a while until they find something else to do,” he said.

©2016 the San Antonio Express-News Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.