California regulators have issued a $10,000 fine to GoGoGrandparent, a San Francisco-based startup that provides a toll-free number that people nationwide can use to request Uber and Lyft rides.
(TNS) — All Justin Boogaard wanted was to help his grandmother order an Uber ride. Like many older adults, she doesn’t have a smartphone.
That led to Boogaard’s creation four years ago of San Francisco startup GoGoGrandparent, which provides a toll-free number that people nationwide and in Canada can call to request Uber and Lyft rides. GoGo summons the rides on clients’ behalf, connecting to the companies’ services through software and adding a 27-cents-a-minute concierge fee on top of the fare.
GoGo said it now has tens of thousands of users, who are mainly elderly or blind, and has made millions of ride requests.
But then California regulators issued GoGo a $10,000 fine in February, saying it needed to apply for a permit as a for-hire transportation company, just like Uber and Lyft.
That would mean lining up million-dollar liability insurance and producing lists of all vehicles and drivers, among other requirements. Boogaard — who terms himself “professional grandson” on his email signature — said that would be prohibitively expensive and makes no sense given that GoGo has no direct relationship with drivers.
“Our response was: That’s crazy,” said Tom MacBride, GoGo’s lawyer. “GoGo is just helping the person order a ride; the rider is covered by Uber and Lyft insurance. The Legislature never intended to pigeonhole companies into regulations they can’t possibly comply with.”
MacBride, a San Francisco attorney, took the case pro bono because of its potential to hurt the whole category of similar services offered by hospitals, senior centers, public agencies and other entities that arrange rides on clients’ behalf.
“It’s a slippery slope,” he said.
A division of the California Public Utilities Commission that brought the GoGo action wrote in legal filings that it “recommends the commission ... develop regulations for GoGo and other transportation providers that subcontract” with Uber and Lyft.
That’s a huge and growing category. Uber and Lyft both offer programs — Uber Health, Uber Central, Lyft Concierge and Lyft Business for Healthcare — that allow organizations to arrange rides for their clients. Both describe them as giving rides to thousands of patients a day.
Lyft, which declined to comment on the GoGo case and its ramifications, notes that Concierge has signed up health care companies like CareMore, CareLinx, National MedTrans Network, American Medical Response and Denver Health Hospital, as well as car dealerships and tour operators.
Uber, which also declined to comment, describes Uber Health as partnering with “health care organizations of all shapes and sizes to arrange transportation for both patients and caregivers.”
For many seniors, ride-hailing is not easily accessible. Only 53% of Americans over 65 own a smartphone, according to the Pew Research Center. In the general population, 81% of adults have the devices. Pew also reported that 24% of Americans over age 50 have used ride-hailing services, compared with 36% among all adults.
David Lindeman, director of the Center for Technology and Aging at UC Berkeley, views programs like GoGo as critical for providing “autonomy and independence for older adults, people with disabilities and people recovering from illness.”
“It is unfortunate that a technology solution that creates a win-win for patients, families and providers would be constrained,” he said. “The ability of individuals to participate in social activities in a timely, low-cost way is growing dramatically” through various technology solutions, including GoGo, he said.
Mike Levinson, 67, of Daly City, a retired computer programmer who is legally blind and doesn’t have a smartphone, said he finds GoGo very helpful to supplement paratransit, which requires up to a week’s advance notice.
“I can schedule a same-day trip and modify it that day, which is very convenient,” he said. If GoGo went out of business “it would virtually eliminate my ability to have same-day rides without taking a regular cab (which is more expensive) and it would reduce the flexibility I have to change ride plans.”
In the GoGo case, after a June hearing, Hallie Yacknin, an administrative law judge with the state utilities commission, wrote a decision in August agreeing with GoGo’s contention that it’s not a transportation company, and that Lyft and Uber’s insurance covers passengers who booked rides via GoGo. She said the citation should be dismissed.
The judge called commission arguments that GoGo was engaged in the transportation of people “absurd.”
“There is no rational basis to require GoGo to maintain liability insurance as an additional source of compensation in the event of a passenger injury,” she wrote.
Under commission procedures, that decision was placed on its consent agenda, slated to be adopted by the full commission without further discussion. But the matter was inexplicably postponed three times. It’s now on the Dec. 5 calendar.
Terrie Prosper, a commission spokeswoman, said in an email that agenda items are often held for further consideration.
That was disputed by MacBride, who has specialized in utilities commission cases for 44 years.
While a single hold may occur, he said, “a series of holds is unusual and is usually reserved for big ticket rate-setting or policy matters.” Repeated holds are particularly uncommon in citation matters such as the GoGo case which are supposed to be perfunctory.
MacBride said he’s particularly troubled that the holds may be caused by commission staff requesting them from a commissioner. That would be a violation of due process, he said.
The Consumer Protection and Enforcement Division, which requested the fines, “can be a prosecutor or it can be an adviser but it can’t be both,” he said. “The bottom line is that GoGo is precluded from responding to anything (that division) is saying internally at the commission.”
Boogard said he fears that the holds show “something is happening behind the scenes that in this case could spell doom for GoGo.”
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