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The Revolution Will Be Rideshared

Having weathered a major regulatory attack, Lyft, SideCar, and Uber are on the verge of becoming the default mode of urban transport.

The outcry following the CPUC fines was loud. A Change.org petition to revoke Lyft’s and SideCar’s cease-and-desist orders racked up more than 9,500 signatures, with many supporters commenting on the safety of the services. Lyft cofounder John Zimmer claimed that the safety measures already in place at the company—criminal background checks, DMV record checks, and a milliondollar excess liability policy—are “above and beyond” those required by the CPUC. SideCar has similar procedures and insurance, and Uber’s partner services are screened and sanctioned by either the city or the state.

Of course, this is all new territory, and insurers in general are reluctant to get behind these ventures because they don’t know what sorts of risks are involved. There are even questions about whether Lyft’s and SideCar’s insurance policies would hold up. So far, none of them has had to be tested, which leaves the issue hanging, somewhat uncomfortably, in the balance. All this gray area notwithstanding, customers note that ridesharing drivers have an interest in playing it safe. “I’ve been in taxis where I felt like I was going to die,” says Sevasti Travlos, a solar company employee who moved to San Francisco last year. “SideCar drivers are protective of their cars and want to do a safe job.”

The CPUC is tight-lipped about its internal processes, but less than a month after it levied the fines, it agreed to initiate talks on new regulations— and soon issued temporary reprieves for Lyft and Uber. (Their headaches aren’t over, though. At press time, San Francisco International Airport banned ridesharing companies from the premises until the CPUC issues its regulations.) Again, SideCar is in a different position. Its fine and cease-and-desist order are still in place because it refused to sign the interim agreement that Lyft and Uber did. It claims that because it’s the only service that requires customers to list their destination up front, it’s the only true ridesharing company and should be regulated differently.

The CPUC’s new rules aren’t due out until June, but ridesharing and other app-enabled transportation services are certainly here to stay. “I think we’ve had a productive relationship with the CPUC over the past two years,” says Ilya Abyzov, Uber’s San Francisco general manager, “and I don’t think California has any interest in jeopardizing its status as a state that incubates innovative, groundbreaking companies.” Indeed, it’s the CPUC’s promising stance on ridesharing that inspired Uber’s new peer-to-peer option.

Winnicker agrees. “Ridesharing is very San Francisco, and we should nurture that, not jump because it threatens an existing order.” Soon, even the city’s cab drivers may get on board: The SFMTA just passed new legislation that will make San Francisco’s entire fleet of 1,700 taxis electronically hailable from one app. (And who knows? Maybe the competition will be the kick in the pants that cabbies need to tone down the wild driving and be more hospitable.) 

What’s the next chapter in San Francisco transportation going to look like? More shared point-to-point services, for sure, like the city-initiated bike-sharing program that’s due sometime this year, and the electric scooter rental company, Scoot, that launched last year. Lyft’s Zimmer is already dreaming about a time when the line between services begins to blur. He describes a vehicle of the future: “You tap a button, and this pod arrives and picks us all up because we’re all going in the same direction. And there’s a digital display that says, ‘You have two friends in common, and you both like this type of music.’”

Shaheen would be happy with something a bit more down to earth—and a lot more likely. “It would be amazing to have an app where you say, ‘I’m going from San Francisco to Oakland—what are my choices?’”

Originally published in the May 2013 issue of San Francisco.

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