How we can tax Uber

Maybe SF can charge a fee for all the congestion, street damage, and Muni impacts of 45,000 new cars on the streets

Pretty much everyone in San Francisco these days (except for Mayor Ed Lee) has come to the conclusion that Uber is a problem. Progressives, conservatives, even business leaders are noticing that you can’t get around town any more: With 45,000 Uber and Lyft vehicles on the streets, many driven by people who aren’t paying attention to the road because they are looking at the maps on their phones, traffic is as bad as it’s ever been.

Uber driver blocks the bike lane on Valencia
Uber driver blocks the bike lane on Valencia

It’s horrible for people who try to drive around town; everyone single person I know who drives regularly in the city is infuriated. It’s scary for those of us who normally use two-wheeled human-powered transportation: I can’t ride in the bike lane on Valencia Street on a Thursday or Friday evening any more, since the lanes are totally clogged with Ubers who pull in and out with no warning, make illegal U-turns, and act as if the bike lane was their private parking area.

Somebody’s going to get killed.

I remember the Uber folks arguing that “ride sharing” (no, it’s not sharing; that’s what happens when you help your friends, this is a commercial transaction) would get people to give up their cars. See? An alternative.

Instead, from what I can see (with no data, more on that later), it appears that a lot of people who have plenty of disposable income have decided that Uber is more convenient than Muni, so we have taken people off public transit and put them in cars.

That’s why there are so many more cars on the road. Or so it seems.

Meanwhile, Uber has a market capitalization in the stratosphere, the founders and the investors are getting really, really rich running what started as an illegal cab industry and was only retroactively legalized by the state Public Utilities Commission, which isn’t exactly the most trustworthy of organizations.

The drivers aren’t doing so well, either: They work hard for often very modest pay. Many can’t afford to live in the city, so they drive long distances to come to work, drive long shifts, and then drive long distances to get home. Uber exploits its workers like an old-fashioned robber baron.

All of this takes a toll on the city – on the roads, on the time we all spend in traffic, on the danger to pedestrians and bicyclists. I suspect this is something that a nexus study could quantify.

Nexus studies are part of how cities survive these days under state laws that don’t allow us to raise taxes without going to extraordinary lengths. The Board of Supes can’t just tax Uber – but if we can prove that Uber has a demonstrable financial impact on the city, we can charge a fee to mitigate that impact.

That’s how we charge developers (far too little) for the impact they have on Muni. It’s how we set fees for converting industrial space into office space.

And maybe it’s a way to start taxing Uber and Lyft for the mayhem they are causing.

So maybe it’s time for one of the supervisors to call for the city controller to do a nexus study on how much Uber and Lyft costs San Franciscans in increased congestion (which wastes the time and thus the money of everyone on the road), increased road repairs, increased needs for traffic enforcement personnel, increased delays for Muni, lost revenue for Muni … I could come up with a long list of quantifiable impacts that these companies cause.

Then, by state law, we could charge the companies (NOT the drivers, the companies themselves) a significant fee every year to cover the costs.

Then maybe we can get state legislation (although I despair of Sen. Scott Wiener and Assemblymember David Chiu going after the “sharing economy”) that would allow us to limit the number of Uber and Lyft vehicles on the streets.

We are a transit-first city, and our transit is being attacked by private car companies.

Something must be done. Maybe we can start with a nexus study and a fee.

171 COMMENTS

  1. What’s dumber than a regressive tax? How about a regressive tax that is applied arbitrarily?

    Why not tax all vehicles driving in San Francisco, not just UBER? Or have a congestion charge, like in London?

    I live in Oakland, but when I go to San Francisco I take public transit and I walk.

    • Because Uber is not just a major source of problems. They are the problem. They have created a lot of the congestion. Ever wonder why taxis were regulated? It was not to be mean, it was to prevent exactly what is happening with Uber and Lyft. Uber and Lyft don’t want to be regulated like taxis, and have to buy medallions…fine, charge them a fee for using public streets to operate their business.

      • The taxi medallion system was implemented to reduce competition between drivers during the great depression, not to reduce congestion.

        In the long term taxi drivers stayed impoverished, and the gains from the restricted supply of taxis went to the medallion owners.

      • The taxi medallion system has served several purposes. And drivers who purchased medallions had a nest egg for their retirement. Uber and Lyft should have to do the same as cab companies, and have medallions. Instead, they have simply cheated.

  2. You can make a u-turn anywhere in California except where there’s a sign expressly prohibiting making a u-turn. It’s 100% legal to make a u-turn on Valencia or Mission or any other street, if you can manage it.

    • That would be illegal in California on any blocks that are business districts, which define most of Mission and all of Valencia. I’m surprised you haven’t learned this the hard way yet. See:
      “https://www.dmv.ca.gov/portal/dmv/detail/pubs/hdbk/turns

      • Good call!:
        U-turns are prohibited:
        In business districts. Areas with churches, apartments, multifamily housing units, and public buildings (except schools) are also considered to be business districts. Turn only at an intersection, unless a sign prohibits it, or where openings are provided for turns.

        Hmmm, that seem to cover quite a bit of San Francisco. And notice it says, “Turn only at an intersection, unless a sign prohibits it, or where openings are provided for turns.” That means don’t, for example, turn onto a street, and do a u-turn immediately in the middle of the block because you can’t make a left hand turn.

  3. If you want to argue about labor issues related to Uber, fine, but how does someone with “lots of disposable income” taking Uber/Lyft instead of Muni add to congestion anymore than someone with “lots of disposable income” taking a cab? People with money who use Uber/Lyft would not suddenly start taking Muni, if Uber/Lyft were gone–they would simply do what they did before, which is either take a taxi or drive their own car.

    • Cabs are limited in number. This is called “regulation.” It prevents various problems, like congestions. Uber ignores regulation. They came up with a silly claim that because they were “ride sharing,” which originally meant that someone could simply tell the driver, “Thanks for the ride, have a nice day, and not pay,” to get around the laws against gypsy cabs. It is illegal to operate a taxi without a medallion. There is a set number of cabs allowed, Uber has something like 47,000 drivers competing. There are 1,800 cabs. People who use Uber probably don’t have cars of their own in many cases. San Francisco is much like New York, where car ownership is not really necessary, or particularly desirable. Unless your residence includes off street parking, it is a major problem to own a car. In addition to the cost of the car, you have insurance, high gas prices, maintenance, the absurd cost of a parking ticket, and other considerations (theft is not a minor one) that make it questionable why one would want a car. Renting a car is much cheaper on the occasion where one actually needs one. I wound up with a car during 2015. I had lived here for years without one, but I decided, what the heck, it might be nice to have one so I could go places that I haven’t been able to easily reach. After about five months, I said “Forget it!” I accumulated a frightening number of parking tickets, had my car broken into several times, and found traffic to be a nightmare.

      • Never stated it was just Uber that kills pedestrians! There are high risk and distractions involved in being a public transportation! Uber seem to not care about these risks. The avoid any liabilities. The have shown they care nothing about the public or customers safety . The states allowing them to avoid laws and regulations are just as guilty of avoiding responsibility. Everyone thinks it’s great until something bad happens . Users could care less about the risk until the ride goes bad the they want to cry foul. Uber/lyft are not about allowing people to earn money . They are all about them earning money and the driver carrying all cost and responsibility while making a few bucks

      • Whether or not Uber/lyft pay a living wage is unrelated to the safety/traffic issue. Not saying that’s not an issue.

        How do you get around? Bicycle? Walk? Public transit? Car?

        If you drive a car, do you feel like you have more of a right to be on the road than someone else taking an Uber or lyft? If so, why?

  4. Does anyone really think that a city like San Francisco with its cobbled streets and old Victorian mansions could support a quadrupling of traffic and cars on the streets without running into problems? A little urban planning might go a long way in terms of restricting car traffic. Rome has a similar problem and they deal with it by restricting vehicles in certain areas. Other cities have expanded their roads and build additional traffic lanes.

  5. Uber has so many government agencies investigating/suing them and so many class action lawsuits pending they may not even exist as a viable commercial entity. They use a sophisticated software program to cheat both the drivers and the passengers into thinking they are driving more miles than they are. They also make passengers sign a liability waiver with their app which states that they can’t sue Uber under any circumstances including death or dismemberment of the passenger. And they try to cheat their employees by classifying them as private contractors not employees. Ask yourself, do you really want to support a company like this?
    http://www.latimes.com/local/lanow/la-me-uber-drivers-lawsuit-20170429-story.html
    Think about it: We have gone from a business motto in society which implies that the customer is always right to a business motto which says “any customer who is enough of a sucker to trust us gets what they deserve: SCREWED” And by the way while we are at it we will screw our employees only they can’t sue us because they are not really employees. Wow the ethical standards of the business leaders in Uber are off the charts…

  6. Whenever I’m stuck in a car in traffic, I try to remember that I AM the traffic. And before we blame Uber/Lyft or talk of taxing them, just remember that something like 75% of all their riders are using the economical carpooling function, so that drivers are picking up multiple riders going roughly in same direction. All these riders might have driven their own cars, taking parking spaces in neighborhoods beyond their own all over the city. Between the freeing up of parking, the reduction in private car use or ownership, and the enviromental benefits of carpooling, Uber and Lyft improve quality of life for many people. Yes, there is a big problem with double parking and congestion, but let’s address those problems by taxing all drivers or levying a congestion charge on all users. And let’s change to a system of letting everyone drop off/pick up passengers by stopping across private driveways for a few seconds. That would be a much safer practice than the rampant double parking.

  7. Uber should be held to the same regulations and taxes as other taxis, it’s only fair. I can’t fathom why people still use Uber, It’s unsafe. I use the taxi app E-HAIL (www.goehail.com) same convenience but trusted drivers.

  8. Wow. Tim never met a tax he didn’t like – even a regressive one like this. Uber will pass the tax on to riders. Sales taxes like this are regressive.

    Effort would be mush better spent figuring out how to make Muni suck less than trying to make Uber suck more.

    “Muni. Slightly faster than walking, but less dependable.”