SFO director initiates crackdown on unpermitted Uber drivers

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San Francisco’s “sharing economy” may be on its way to getting “catalyzed” thanks to this week’s Share Conference, but ridesharing companies also are getting called out – by the director of San Francisco International Airport, for operating illegally.

In a May 9 letter to California Public Utilities Commission President Michael Peevey, SFO Director John Martin requested assistance in enforcing new rules governing Internet-based companies such as Lyft, Uber, and SideCar.

Known in regulatory parlance as TNCs, or transportation network companies, these “ridesharing” businesses are mandated by a CPUC decision to acquire permits before picking up or dropping off airport passengers. The companies provide apps and online payment systems allowing drivers to earn cash driving people around.

In early April, SFO sent out permit application packets to Lyft, Uber, Sidecar, Summon (formerly known as InstaCab) and Wingz (formerly known as Tickengo). Included in the packets “was a letter reminding the TNCs that operating on the airport’s roadways without a permit violates” the state requirement, the letter notes.

But more than a month later, “none of these TNCs have applied for an airport permit,” Martin informed Peevey, “yet they continue to conduct commercial business on the airport’s roadways.”

From April 16 to May 5, police based at the airport apparently performed a TNC crackdown, issuing warnings to 110 drivers for unpermitted operation. By May 15, the number of drivers to receive warnings from law enforcement had climbed above 150, according to SFO spokesperson Doug Yakel.

“Several drivers did not have proof of insurance,” Martin wrote. “One did not have a driver’s license.” Of the 110 who were discovered to be operating illegally, 101 were driving for UberX.

“Eighty percent of the Uber-x drivers did not have trade dress [logos marking them as TNCs] on their vehicles,” as required under the CPUC ruling, Martin wrote. “One Uber-x driver reportedly asked to an officer, ‘why should I advertise for them?’ Four of the Uber-x drivers had no proof of insurance.”

“It’s not the drivers, per se,” Yakel said. “It’s up to the companies they are driving for to submit the permit. We want the TNCs to communicate to their drivers.” He noted that the permitting would begin as a pilot program.

The Bay Guardian phoned Uber for comment, and received this statement from spokesperson Lane Kasselman: "Although SFO’s proposed pilot program raises some concerns about rider and driver privacy, we look forward to working with airport leadership to resolve these issues and ensure that uberX driver partners are able to serve Bay Area residents wherever and whenever they need a ride."

The TNCs are edging into the market of taxicabs, limousines, and other ground transportation vehicles that have traditionally operated at the airport. While Yakel noted that SFO is “very open to new forms of ground transportation,” and interested in helping the companies to comply with state and airport permitting regulations, he characterized illegal TNC operation as a safety concern.

He also said the companies should be operating “on a level playing field” with existing transportation providers.

That means displaying an airport-issued decal in car windows, offering proof that the drivers are covered by TNC-provided insurance as long as they’re on airport property, and paying a trip fee of $3.75. “Every other form of transportation at SFO that’s authorized … is subject to the same standard,” Yakel said.

In his letter, Martin called on the CPUC to “engage in enforcement activities” and to issue a notice to Uber, Lyft, SideCar and the others to stop allowing rides to the airport until airport permits have been issued. He also asked that the CPUC require TNCs to post prominent notices on their websites, informing drivers and customers that there would be no more rides to the airport until further notice.

Airport administrators are scheduled to meet with the CPUC next month for further discussion.

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