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News + PoliticsDoes SF need 24/7 robot taxis (that don't pay any fee to...

Does SF need 24/7 robot taxis (that don’t pay any fee to be taxis)?

Plus: A move to limit ballot information, and a cut to affordable housing requirements for developers. That's The Agenda for July 9-16


San Francisco deeply damaged the lives of taxi drivers when the city, under Mayor Ed Lee, allowed Lyft and Uber to operate illegal cab services with no oversight or regulation.

Now, just as the taxi industry is slowly recovering from the pandemic, the state Public Utilities Commission is going to throw another punch to the faces of drivers: It’s slated to vote Thursday/13 to allow Waymo to charge fares for driverless rides, anywhere in the city, any time of day or night.

Since Waymo isn’t paying drivers, and is owned by Alphabet, which has huge amounts of cash to subsidize the service, those rides will almost certainly cost less than cabs.

Photo by Dietmar Rabich / Wikimedia Commons / “San Francisco (CA, USA), California Street, autonomes Fahrzeug (Waymo) — 2022 — 2925” / CC BY-SA 4.0

Maybe that sounds good for consumers (although not for pedestrians, public safety workers, or bicyclists) but let’s remember: Right before Uber and Lyft launched their illegal services, San Francisco decided to privatize taxi medallions, selling for $250,000 a permit that used to be essentially free for drivers who were actually operating a cab.

The process for distributing the limited numbers of valuable medallions was simple: Seniority. You start driving a cab, spending part of your income every day to rent a medallion, then you get on the wait list, and after about 15 years, your name comes up and you get to take over your own permit.

Nobody could get or own a permit unless they were actively driving a cab.

Then suddenly, under Newsom: Pony up $250,000 and anyone can buy one.

San Francisco Federal Credit Union began making loans to drivers, and paying off the interest still allowed them to make a decent living.

Then: Uber and Lyft. Now those permits are almost worthless; there’s no market. Drivers have gone bankrupt, the credit union has sued the city, and still, nobody has done anything to help the drivers.

Now Waymo wants to make it worse.

The company is already allowed to offer free driverless rides, on an experimental basis, to some customers in the city. It hasn’t always worked out: Driverless vehicles can stop unexpectedly, can block public safety vehicles, plow through crime scenes, get caught in downed Muni lines, and run over people. Oh, and a simple traffic cone on the hood renders then inoperable.

Waymo wants the CPUC to let it expand service, in essence competing with the cab industry, whose drivers are suffering, and even Uber and Lyft, whose drivers are struggling to survive on low pay and no benefits.

There’s a much larger question here, one that the city, the state, and the country are utterly unprepared to address: As technology replaces the 2.3 million or so people whose occupation, according to the US Census, is “driver,” what do we do about their livelihoods? The median age for drivers is 47; most don’t have a college degree and are going to have a hard time “retraining” for other jobs.

The same will apply, before long, to other professions, but this one is coming fast.

Meanwhile, the city is worried about the safety of the Waymo cars. The Municipal Transportation Agency wrote to the CPUC saying that the safety record is spotty and urging the agency to delay certification. The CPUC noted the concerns, then dismissed them:

However, these anecdotes do not represent a sufficiently robust set of facts upon which to alter the Draft Resolution’s findings or conclusions.


San Francisco states that its analysis indicates the Waymo AV’s injury collision rate appears to be higher than average human drivers.  However, we find San Francisco’s analysis lacks sufficient rigor and nuance to form a basis for modifying the Resolution.

Regarding the frequency of collisions, San Francisco’s analysis necessarily covers a very limited data set – 6 months of operation and an estimated 1.9 million vehicle miles traveled (VMT) – due to the nascent nature and small scale of Waymo’s AV operations relative to conventional human-driven vehicles, which constitute multiple orders of magnitude more VMT. Extrapolating from less than 2 million miles to 100 million, and then comparing to a national average without normalizing for factors such as roadway type (e.g. arterial vs. local street) or land use context (e.g., urban, suburban, or rural) introduces an unacceptably high degree of statistical error and uncertainty.

Umm … there’s a high degree of statistical error and uncertainty, and yet the commission is poised to move ahead here?

Among the comments on the CPUC record:

Years ago the PUC overstepped its boundaries when it allowed TNCs to function like taxicabs in San Francisco. Throughout public comment, the record is filled with testimony of alleged back-room deals and corruption, leading the PUC to make this ruling by using extremely flimsy logic to reach its conclusions. This is an opportunity for the PUC to correct its past wrongs. Taxicabs are clearly under City jurisdiction and taxi medallions should have been a requirement for TNCs to operate in their vehicles. We are now at a similar place with AV TNCs. Jurisdiction should be returned to the cities and AV TNCs should be required to purchase medallions from the City in order to operate their vehicles. This would be the most equitable and moral solution for all parties involved. (Dennis Korkos)

Regardless of how you label Waymo and Cruise, and Uber and Lyft, they are providing taxi services in the City of San Francisco; they are taxicabs in every sense of the word. If cab drivers had to pay $250,000 for a taxi medallion to operate a taxicab in San Francisco, why are these companies getting a free ride and not paying into the medallion system? Why must only cab drivers pay? (Marcelo Fonseca)

 I am a taxi medallion purchaser in San Francisco. I am concerned that by allowing driverless rideshares free access to fares that I have to pay for will harm me and my ability to earn a living and feed my family. I am officially offering my medallion for sale to driverless rideshare companies for the purchase price of $250,000. Thank you. Jay Chatfield. Medallion #1528

All good questions. The hearing starts at 11am, at 505 Van Ness.

The Board of Supes will vote Tuesday/17 on the final budget, as approved by the Budget and Appropriations Committee, and it’s entirely possible that the plan will get 11 votes. That, City Hall insiders say, is a testament to the work that Sup. Connie Chan, her staff, and the other members of the committee and their staffs did challenging some of the worst of the mayor’s proposals and coming up with a document everyone can live with, as well as the hundreds of community activists who organized to protect vital services.

It didn’t start out this way.

Other than police funding and some non-market housing money, Breed lost on almost all of her major spending initiatives. That doesn’t mean the progressives will see the money that they have re-allocated go where it’s supposed to; under our strong-mayor system, Breed can simply refuse to spend money, and she’s done that before.

Any budget this size is going to include what’s known as “trailing legislation,” meaning specific bills that will implement some of the changes. Those, also, will come before the board, and most of them are part of an accepted compromise and not a big deal.

But one stuck out to me: It’s a move to exempt the city from 2022 state legislation that requires ballots to include, along with a description of an initiative or other measure, a list of the major supporters and opponents. That seems like a pretty good idea to me; when I decide whether to endorse or vote for a measure, I always look at who’s on which side. A complex state ballot measure dealing with seniors and Prop. 13? If the Gray Panthers support it, I’m probably good. If the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association is a sponsor, I’m voting No.

A health-care measure? I typically vote with the nurses and against the health-insurance industry. Local measures? If the Milk Club, the Tenants Union, the Haight Ashbury Neighborhood Council, the Housing Rights Committee, the Coalition on Homelessness and Tom Ammiano like it, I’m generally persuaded. If the Chamber of Commerce and the Board of Realtors are on board, odds are you won’t get me.

So why not include that information on the voter cards?

According to the Mayor’s Office, the 150-word descriptions of proponents and opponents would require more space on the ballot cards, and that could cost the city some money, maybe $1 million a year. Besides, the information is already in the Ballot Handbook.

But not everyone reads the Ballot Handbook, and this seems like a pretty low price to pay for something every voter needs: More on-the-spot information about what are often complicated ballot measures.

The Planning Commission will consider Thursday/13 a measure to reduce the city’s affordable housing requirements for some projects that have been approved but aren’t getting built.

That’s a response to a nexus study completed earlier this year that showed virtually no new for-profit housing projects were financially feasible right now, mostly because of the cost of land and materials and the Fed’s high interest rates.

The idea is that a lower affordable-housing requirement might make it possible for some of these developers to move forward:

The TAC found that certain mid- and low-rise condominium projects were feasible at reduced levels, but the high-rise condominium projects and all rental projects remained infeasible. The TAC adopted a recommendation to reduce the on-site inclusionary requirement to 12%- 16% and to reduce the affordable housing fee rate to 22%-29%. Setting rates at the lower ends of these ranges would improve the feasibility of mid-rise projects.

In fact, the controller’s report said that a few of these projects might be “marginally feasible” at lower affordability levels.

The issue, of course, is whether it’s worth allowing developers to build these project in the first place. A study done eight years ago suggested that building market-rate housing with less than 25-40 percent affordable actually made the housing crisis worse. That’s because building housing for rich people creates jobs (baristas, cleaners, drivers, etc.) and those people need affordable housing.

I’m not sure how that plays out in 2023, with so many high-paid workers moving out of San Francisco. But it seems to be a question the commissioners and the supes might want to ask.

Also: Even with lower affordability requirements, most of these units still don’t “pencil out.” So in exchange for cutting the amount of affordable housing (and the city’s Housing Element calls for more than half of all new housing to be below-market-rate) ewe might not see much new market-rate housing anyway.

That meeting starts at 1pm.

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
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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