Uber vs. SFO: Will Mayor Lee take sides?


NOTE: This post has been updated from an earlier version.

 Police at the San Francisco International Airport have been cracking down lately on unauthorized drivers working for Uber and other app-based “rideshare” companies. Drivers have been stopped and warned that it’s not legal to operate at the airport without required permits. But three rideshare companies have banded together to fight back – and now they’re trying to get Mayor Ed Lee to intervene on their behalf. 

On April 7, SFO sent out hefty permit application packages to Uber, Lyft, Sidecar, and a couple other “transportation network companies,” as they’re formally called. To operate legally under recently passed state regulations and a new airport pilot program, the TNCs were directed to fill out the applications and obtain operating permits for their drivers.

But Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar have so far refused to fill out the applications, because they don’t like the rules.

Government agencies are supposed to write rules in collaboration with the industry stakeholders who are being regulated, Uber spokesperson Lane Kasselman insisted in an interview with the Bay Guardian, but “that didn’t happen in this process.”

Instead, SFO just wrote up a set of rules for rideshares that are similar to those regulating taxis, without ever consulting rideshare CEOs, Kasselman said. In particular, TNCs disagree with a rule requiring them to turn over names and associated information of all registered TNC drivers. They’re also unhappy with a rule stating that they must provide locational data showing TNCs on airport property.

Those rules are unreasonable due to “privacy concerns,” said Kasselman. Uber issues iPhones to its drivers that use GPS to automatically track the movements of drivers and passengers in real-time, for billing purposes.

Rather than enroll in the pilot program and sort out their concerns from there, the TNCs have decided to turn to Mayor Ed Lee for help.

“Despite the potential impact to thousands of rideshare small business owners, any and all requests on behalf of TNCs to meet with the Airport and discuss the level of detail mandated by the April 7th permit package have been rejected,” representatives from rideshare competitors Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar wrote in a jointly signed May 23 letter to Mayor Lee. “We have been told we cannot have a conversation with the airport, even on clarifying questions, until we complete and sign the application.”

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What do they expect the mayor to do about it? “We’re hoping the mayor will broker a meeting,” said Kasselman. “They refuse to meet with us,” he added, referring to SFO.

While SFO is reportedly not on speaking terms with the TNCs (except via police officers issuing warnings to their drivers), SFO has been in touch with the California Public Utilities Commission, to enlist its help with the crackdown.

In a May 9 letter, SFO Director John Martin urged CPUC President Michael Peevey to order TNCs to halt all airport trips until further notice, effective until this permit problem had been cleared up.

Has Uber given any indication to its drivers that they shouldn’t be conducting business at the airport? “I think our drivers are looking to their riders about where they want to go,” Kasselman said when we asked about that. Sounds as if nothing has changed there.

What this seems to be leading up to is a standoff, where the airport is hoping the CPUC will intervene to enforce the rules, while the TNCs are hoping the mayor will intervene to get the rules bent to their liking.

Will Lee step into the fray? Outlook hazy, try again later. (Lee’s office hasn’t responded to requests for comment, but we’ll update this post if we hear back.)

UPDATE: Lee's spokesperson Christine Falvey just responded to us with this comment: 

"Mayor Lee is a strong supporter of the sharing economy because of the benefit it brings to everyday San Francisco residents. Ridesharing is an innovative transportation alternative for many City residents and SFO customers and the mayor is supportive of SFO's proactive efforts to permit and regulate rideshare companies to ensure access, customer service and public safety. To your questions, Mayor Lee defers transportation policy decisions about airport transportation issues to his highly respected Airport Director John Martin and the Airport Commission."