Why can Uber and Lyft use city streets for free?

Data suggests that the companies not only clog the streets -- they take money from Muni. Why don't they have to pay a franchise fee?

When San Francisco news media reported on a blockbuster study showing the impacts of Uber and Lyft on San Francisco transportation and traffic, Sup. Aaron Peskin said the data was “shocking.”

That’s an understatement: The report shows that drivers for the two services clock 570,000 miles a day, making more than 170,000 trips. This has a huge impact on traffic in the city (and anything that has an impact on traffic has an impact on Muni).

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

Then I got the following statement from state Sen. Scott Wiener:

Sacramento –  Today, Senator Scott Wiener (D- San Francisco) released the following statement on the release of a study authored by the San Francisco County Transportation Authority about the volume of trips by ride-hailing services in San Francisco:

 “These numbers confirm what we see every day on our streets: that ride-hailing services have grown to become a significant part of our overall transportation network. These services, while certainly having impacts, provide significant benefits as well. They allow people to live without cars, or at least to drive cars less. They lead to fewer people circling for parking. And, they addressed the critical taxi shortage our city faced for so many years – a shortage so stark that no one could ever rely on getting a taxi when they needed one.

 We need to do more to address the impacts of these services, including double parking and other traffic issues. And, we also need to understand the issue more broadly before making significant policy decisions that could undermine the availability of these services. For example, how many of these 170,000 vehicle trips replaced preexisting trips as people chose to use ride hails instead of driving their own vehicles? How many people would go back to using private autos if the ride hail services became less available? It’s important to look at the big picture.

 In assessing the benefits and impacts of ride hail services, we also need to avoid blaming these services for San Francisco’s congestion problems. While ride hail vehicles contribute to congestion, so do the many hundreds of thousands of non-ride-hail vehicles that drive through our city. The reality is that San Francisco has grown tremendously, in terms of population, jobs, and overall economic activity. We simply have more people, workers, visitors, and vehicles in our city. And, ride hails are, by no stretch, the only vehicles that double park.

That was another stunner, although I shouldn’t be surprised by it. Wiener is one of those Democrats who believes that the private market offers better solutions than the public sector, and this is one example.

In fact, the discussion over Uber and Lyft just further illustrates the divide in San Francisco politics, which in some ways mirrors the divide in national Democratic Party politics, between people who believe the private market will solve our problems and people who believe that private-sector solutions are exactly what have gotten us into this economic mess.

Here’s where Wiener and I disagree: I don’t think that most of those 170,000 trips replaced trips that people would otherwise have taken in private vehicles – and I think the data shows I’m right.

I think many, if not most of those trips were taken on Uber or Lyft instead of Muni.

This private, locally unregulated and untaxed taxi system is not getting people out of their cars. It’s getting them off public transit.

I have two teenagers, and my teenagers have teenage friends, and I spend a fair amount of time with young folks who travel around the city a lot, who used to take Muni everywhere – and now they take Uber or Lyft instead.

Five guys are hanging out at Dolores Park. Most of them are over 18, and don’t get youth bus fares. They want to go to the Haight. Muni is a fairly easy solution – at $2.25 a person. But if they all pack into an Uber, they can get there in a private car for about the same price. We’re not talking rich kids here; this is how the young people who have part-time jobs and a little pocket money spend it.

And clearly a lot of people will more money to spend have decided to abandon Muni for Uber and Lyft.

Then let’s look at the visualizations of where the Uber and Lyft rides are.

The data that the city put out has been compiled into a number of maps, and they all show the same thing: The vast, vast majority of the Uber and Lyft trips begin and end north of Cesar Chavez and east of Divisadero, and most of those are downtown. The areas that these trips begin and end are the parts of the city that are best served by public transit – and that are already the most congested.

I don’t know anyone who drives a private car on a regular basis into the downtown core. It’s nuts – the traffic is horrible and there’s no place to park. Those Uber and Lyft trips aren’t, I would hazard a guess, replacing people who decided not to drive, or who would be circling looking for a parking space. They are replacing people who would have taken Muni or BART.

Now let’s look at some Muni numbers.

In 2012-2013, five years ago, Muni averaged 68,000 riders a day. This year, it’s up to 71,000. That’s an increase of about 4 percent. (Paul Rose, Muni spokesperson, says if you go back to 2011, the increase is about 8 percent.)

In that same period, the population of San Francisco has increased by about 10 percent – and the daytime population is up even more.

Logically, Muni ridership should be up a lot more than it is.

Meanwhile, the number of cars registered in the city, according to DMV data, is up by 23,000. And by most accounts, when you include the Uber and Lyft drivers who commute here to drive shifts, the number is closer to 45,000.

Rose tells me

While San Francisco is the epicenter of all emerging transportation services, the impacts have had very little impact on Muni’s ridership. We don’t have specific TNC data to determine their service levels and impacts on transportation.  However, based on a “Transportation Decision Survey” from 2015, 24 percent of all trips in San Francisco are made by transit. That number is up from 23 percent back in 2012.

Okay. But there are a lot more trips – and the number that go to Uber and Lyft has to be increasing. There’s no other way to interpret this data.


The way the fans of modern market-based economics see it, that’s just fine. This is a new option, something that tech entrepreneurs created. We should encourage it, or at the very least leave it alone.

But the market, as we see every day, doesn’t tend to cover its own impacts. In San Francisco, developers of market-rate housing don’t pay for the impacts they create on housing, transportation, and city services. Office developers don’t pay for the additional demands on Muni service that their buildings create.

And Uber and Lyft don’t pay for the damage they have done to the city.

For starters: Congestion hurts Muni. Most of the city’s transit lines, sadly, are above ground. If you ask transportation experts why Muni is so slow, the first answer they will give is: Traffic.

Lots of people say that Muni is so shoddy they have to take private cars. But the main reason Muni isn’t better is that too many people take private cars on the streets. You want faster Muni? Reduce private car traffic.

The red-carpet lanes on Mission Street prove the point. Once the city banned cars from a normally congested part of a key Muni line, the travel times got faster, the service better. That’s the idea behind bus rapid transit on Van Ness and Geary: Get the cars out of the way, and the buses go a lot faster.

But Uber and Lyft encourage cars on the street, a lot of them, and most of them are in an area that is central to the city’s transportation network. You simply can’t deny that Uber and Lyft are adding to the congestion on San Francisco streets.

Take a walk down Valencia Street on a Friday night. Dozens of Ubers and Lyfts block the bike lanes, forcing bicyclists into traffic, slowing down traffic to a crawl.

There are just too many of these cars on the streets.

They’re also, almost certainly, taking riders (and thus money) away from Muni. San Francisco’s transit-first policy (which Scott Wiener has always said he supported) is not about getting people out of one type of car and into another; it’s about getting people out of cars altogether.

So two companies that slow down Muni and take away its customers (and thus some of the revenue it could use to improve service) pay the city how much?

Um, nothing.

At least taxi drivers have to pay for a city permit. Uber and Lyft use city streets to make money, put costs on the taxpayers, and pay zero.

Sup. Jane Kim is talking about a modest charge per ride. There’s another way to do it, possibly: Charge the companies a franchise fee.

I hear this idea from Potrero Hill activist Tony Kelly, who is a font of great ideas. We charge Comcast, AT&T and PG&E money for the right to run their cables under city streets. Why don’t Uber and Lyft have to pay a fee for the right to use the city streets for profit?

Why not do a nexus study that looks at all the costs these companies put on the city, and make them pay for it?

Can anybody tell me why this is a bad idea?