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News + PoliticsScathing new city report repudiates Lee, Breed policies on Uber, Lyft

Scathing new city report repudiates Lee, Breed policies on Uber, Lyft

Planners say TNCs have caused terrible problems because the city didn't regulate them. Plus, on housing: It's capitalism, stupid.

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The San Francisco Planning Commission today discussed, if only briefly, a stunning new report from the Planning Department on Uber, Lyft, and other so-called Transportation Network Companies.

The report, which you can read here, directly repudiates the policies of former Mayor Ed Lee and, at least in the early days of her term, Mayor London Breed.

It lays out in exceptional detail how the TNCs have deeply damaged the city and how the city’s failure to regulate these companies has been a terrible failure.

Cab drivers protest Uber, which the city allowed to operate illegally for years.

The report is fairly short on strong policy recommendations, and the commissioners were mostly modest in their discussion, except for Commissioner Sue Diamond, who talked about how great Uber and Lyft are.

But the report is not at all subtle about the problems that these companies have created. Among other things, the report says, 50 percent of the increased congestion on city streets is due to the TNCs, which include delivery companies as well as Uber and Lyft, and these companies are seriously undermining the city’s ability to meet its climate goals.

It notes

Without further government intervention, it is unlikely San Francisco will meet its safety, equity, and climate goals. Given TNCs’ tendency to increase vehicle travel, we will instead see more cars on the road, which will have dire consequences on air quality, health, economic prosperity, and safety. Additionally, technology-based transportation services will be available for a select segment of able-bodied people who can afford them, which will compound the socioeconomic divisions and inequities that we see today. The City should set the policy foundation for TNCs and other emerging mobility providers to respond to its principles and rules instead of the other way around. It must be the City, through its residents, community representatives, and elected representatives who should manage the City’s public streets.

To be clear, San Francisco welcomes new technology and services. From the building of the Golden Gate Bridge to the invention of television, San Francisco has long been the home of innovation. The City welcomes innovation – as long as it serves the goals of the people in San Francisco and the Bay Area and not the reverse. The City’s streets are a vital, limited resource that must serve people – residents, workers, and visitors – and not private entities and vehicles.

That’s a radical shift in position from what Mayor Lee did when he encouraged Uber and Lyft, even when they were clearly breaking the law, and told his enforcement staff to leave them alone because they were local tech companies.

This, of course, devasted the lives of cab drivers and added to the massive congestion on the streets. I spoke at the time with people who worked in the taxi-enforcement operation at City Hall; they were furious that these illegal cabs were going around and picking up passengers, and the Mayor’s Office had told them to look the other way.

Breed sided with the tech companies, too: According to Mission Local, when she sought to fire Muni Director Ed Reiskin, one of the main reasons was that he wasn’t friendly enough to the TNCs:

Mayor Breed, one source continued, “watched Reiskin undermine Ed Lee” by “failing to meet with TNCs” — Transportation Network Companies like Uber and Lyft — on the terms Lee would have preferred. 

“Right now, for Uber, Lyft and everyone on their payroll, Reiskin is a bad department head for them,” notes a longtime city politico. “Because he says no to them.” 

Even as recently as last year, Breed appeared with Uber execs and said she was proud to welcome the company to its new headquarters.

Now, the planners are saying that approach was a big mistake:

In addition, the Transportation Authority noted the increased use of TNCs in San Francisco is “in part an outcome and reflection of relatively light regulatory requirements under which TNCs operate relative to taxis and other for-hire vehicles.” This differs from the heavy regulatory requirements under which taxis operate. The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) is responsible for regulating most aspects of TNCs. The CPUC does not restrict the number of TNCs that may operate in San Francisco, nor has it publicly shared data that TNCs provided them despite decisions requiring its release.

That, of course, is because Lee allowed Uber and Lyft to operate illegally long enough to get a foothold, raise a lot of money, hire state lobbyists and get the rules changed so that cities in California couldn’t regulate them.

Here’s the result:

Researchers have studied TNCs’ effects on individuals’ travel behavior and congestion, among other factors (e.g., safety, labor). Their findings show that TNCs shift people away from other means of travel, including walking, bicycling, and transit. TNCs also generate more car trips, thereby increasing congestion.TNCs circulate on streets frequently with few or no passengers, induce travel, and compete with public transit, instead of supplementing it.This, in turn, results in increased vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and congestion, even when accounting for multipassenger (i.e., shared) TNC options.

Many of these TNC effects undermine the City’s goals, including those related to climate action. San Francisco has set a target to have 80% of trips be on sustainable modes by 2030, specifically those taken on foot, bike, and transit. Achieving this target will reduce emissions and is imperative given our climate crisis. The target is also instrumental to reducing congestion on City streets. However, it will be challenging to reach this milestone given TNCs’ tendencies to induce vehicle travel.

There is also evidence that competition with public transit is part of TNCs’ business model. Uber has acknowledged it must compete with public transportation to grow. The company wrote in its registration filing with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in 2019 that its “growth depends on a number of factors, including our ability to …reduce the costs of our Personal Mobility offering to better compete with … other low-cost alternatives like public transportation, which in many cases can be faster or cheaper than any other form of transportation.”

While competition is not unwelcome, TNCs providing services that public agencies currently provide raises serious questions of accountability and equity, including lack of local regulatory authority over TNCs and lack of access to ongoing service data. TNCs like Lyft and Uber, as publicly held companies, are beholden to private interests, such as shareholders and the stock market, and may not provide services to all segments of society as mandated by local, state, and federal mandates (e.g., Title VI).

I’m really glad that I am no longer the only one in San Francisco who has noticed that Uber’s plans include undermining public transit.

More from the report:

Throughout the 2010s, San Francisco and other cities were caught off guard with the appearance of various emerging mobility services and technologies, including electric kick scooters and even TNCs. Public discussions (sometimes heated) ensued along with temporary bans, permit programs, and regulatory requirements. Government entities were responding reactively.

No: San Francisco government knew what was happening, and decided that the tech boom was more important that the cab industry, congestion, safety, equity, or climate change.

And in the future, the planners note:

TNCs and AV passenger services could create a two-tier transportation system, where younger, able-bodied, and/or more affluent people use them. Meanwhile, others would contend with congested, polluted, and less safe streets and slower surface transit, all of which result from additional vehicles in the City. The individuals who would most likely suffer a disproportionate amount of these negative effects are people from communities of color, people with low incomes, people with disabilities, and/or essential workers. As an example, the SFMTA’s “TNCs and Disabled Access” study (2019) showed that the benefits that have drawn people to TNCs (e.g., ease of payment, cheaper fares, and shorter wait times) are not readily available to individuals with disabilities. Additionally, the study noted that the rapid expansion of TNCs has also degraded the quality and availability of on-demand transportation access for riders who require a wheelchairaccessible vehicle by upending the existing taxi industry.

More:

Safety and livability: More car travel creates higher crash exposure.57 Many people are seriously injured or die on San Francisco’s streets every year from crashes. San Francisco saw 30 traffic-related deaths in 2020 and 27 traffic-related deaths in 2021, which are about a 3% increase since 2019 and 11% above the annual average since 2014.

Commissioner Gabriella Ruiz asked the planning staff if there was any way to measure the cost to the city of the pressure all these cars put on the streets, for example, potholes and the need for increased maintenance. The department said there was no way to measure that, because the TNCs and the CPUC aren’t giving up the data. Commissioners Kathrin Moore and Frank Fung asked if anyone had looked at the intersection of TNCs and parklets—and the way the drivers of these vehicles weave in and out of traffic and block curbs and bike lanes and double park because they are under so much pressure to pick up and deliver riders and goods.

Moore:

This unregulated industry will permit themselves to do what they want to do, operate outside the traffic rules, speeding, cutting in car lanes, parking wherever they want.

No, the department hasn’t looked at that.

Then Diamond went on a rant about how wonderful Uber and Lyft are, because they “meet a demand.” Public transit, she said, doesn’t take you door to door, and Uber and Lyft have made it easier for young people to avoid drunk driving.

Which is true—if you have the money to take an Uber or Lyft home, which increasingly is no cheaper than a taxi, and most taxis now have their own apps that work as well as the Uber and Lyft ones.

The report also notes that, because they are not regulated, Uber and Lyft drivers often decline fares from neighborhoods with majority Black or Latino populations.

The report has attracted very little, if any, news media attention, and the commissioners spent a lot more time on the One Oak project (more on that in a moment).

But it offered a strong warning, particularly as these companies seek to add driverless cars to the city streets: If public officials care more about the success of the tech industry then they do about the needs of the public, we are going to go through this whole nightmare again.

I mean, driverless cars are such a great idea …

It’s not CEQA or Nimbys; it’s capitalism

On One Oak: This project has been around since 2017, and it’s always had issues, but it’s become a cautionary tale about relying on the private sector to meet the city’s housing needs.

When Build Inc. first proposed the tower, it was going to be a 304-unit luxury condo project, with a mix of one-, two-, and three-bedroom high-end units.

Even back then, in the boom in luxury housing, Commissioner Moore was dubious: As she recounted today, “I asked the developers if they will be able to deliver.” She got their assurances that the building would go forward.

But it hasn’t.

For five years, it’s languished because Build Inc, a local concern that doesn’t have deep pockets, couldn’t find the financing.

That’s right: The Nimbys didn’t stop this, the planning process and appeals and CEQA didn’t stop this … the neighborhood folks signed off on a deal negotiated by then-Sup. London Breed, and all was good.

Except: Capitalism.

That’s the missing element in all the discussion of housing policy in the city, and all of the Yimby arguments. The deciding factor in this project was one thing alone: Access to capital.

Capital markets, which are now international, go where the return is highest, and at the point Build Inc. was ready to break ground, that money went somewhere else.

So now the company is offering a new project, with 460 rental units, most of them much smaller (not much of the much-vaunted “housing for working families”). It will be studios and one-bedrooms, mostly, with an average size of 800 square feet. Why? That’s the only thing private capital will finance—today.

But even if the commission approves the new project, it’s not clear that it will ever be built.

There wasn’t much opposition at the hearing today. The commissioners are going to approve the new plan (although Moore complained that the original project was a stunning building, and this one is pretty mediocre). There will be no CEQA lawsuit. The delays had nothing to do with the city’s so-called byzantine approval process.

It’s capitalism, stupid. And as soon as we realize that’s the problem with housing in San Francisco, maybe we can start to fix it.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Tim Redmond
Tim Redmond has been a political and investigative reporter in San Francisco for more than 30 years. He spent much of that time as executive editor of the Bay Guardian. He is the founder of 48hills.

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