Photo by Sam Hodgson
A Lyft driver awaits a call in North Park.
San Diego, like the rest of Southern California, is a car-centric place.
Seventy-five percent of commuters get to work by driving alone. Only 4 percent use public transportation.
But expanding the transit system is both expensive and time-consuming. An 11-mile extension of the trolley’s blue line from downtown to University City is projected to cost $1.7 billion and won’t be done for at least another five years. A new bus network meant to mimic the frequency of a subway won’t cost as much to build, but it’ll take just as long.
But laying new tracks or adding new services aren’t the only ways to change the way local residents travel.
And San Diego’s seeing a number of new, private options that aren’t remaking the city, but are at least providing alternatives.
We thought it’d be worthwhile to look at the new providers in the city, how they’ve changed transportation possibilities and what local laws outline their limitations.
Car2Go debuted in San Diego in 2011 and in its first two years has grown to a 380-car fleet of all-electric vehicles serving more than 12,000 members.
It began with the approval of a two-year pilot program, which was recently extended for another year. As CityBeat recently reported, the Council will use the next year to find a way to make the program permanent, which would require a municipal code amendment and could require allowing other companies to compete with Car2Go for the contract.
Users check out white and blue cars by waving a membership card over a space on a car’s windshield. A mobile app helps locate the cars, which users can use for as long as they want and park them in nearly any parking space without worrying about tolls or time constraints.
It costs $35 to register as a member, and trips are either 41 cents a minute or $14.99 an hour.
Cars can be found and left in the city’s uptown, downtown and beach neighborhoods, and in Point Loma, Midway, Mission Valley and out to the College Area. It’s also expanded into Chula Vista.
It works a lot like a taxi, except you drive yourself.
The company also bills itself as a solution to “the last mile problem,” a planning term referring to the fact that most transit options, whether trains or busses, can only bring you so close to your destination, often leaving people to finish the trip with a lengthy walk.
Car2Go isn’t the only company, based in large part around a mobile-phone app, that’s changing transportation options in San Diego.
The city is also home to three different smartphone-based ridesharing companies.
Uber, Lyft and Sidecar are all newish companies that basically act as alternatives to traditionally taxi service.
Really, the only thing that separates them from taxis is the look of the car, and the fact that you can’t hail a car on your own.
The lack of any other difference extends to governmental regulations, of which there are many for taxis, and few for their new-age competitors.
In September, the state’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC) released a series of regulations for the new companies. They now need to do criminal background checks on drivers, put in place driver training programs, carry at least $1 million insurance policies and have strict, zero-tolerance drug and alcohol policies for drivers. Drivers also need to obtain licenses from the PUC.
But the companies don’t face any local restrictions.
“It’s pretty much the Wild West out there,” said Sarah Saez, program director for the United Taxi Works of San Diego, the taxi union that — as you might imagine — is strongly against the upstart companies, and has pushed local agencies to extend taxi restrictions to rideshare drivers.
Local taxis need to be licensed by the County Sherriff’s office, which gives a written competency test largely focused on whether drivers know how to get to major tourist destinations.
And the Metropolitan Transit System, meanwhile, has a number of regulatory roles over taxis. It inspects vehicles, issues permits, conducts background checks, implements standard fares, investigates passenger complaints and monitors compliance with various restrictions.
Basically, the Sherriff’s Department regulates drivers; MTS issues the 900 restricted “medallions” required to work as a taxi in the city, which it sells for $3,000 a piece but which can be re-sold on a quasi black market to other would-be drivers at drastically inflated prices. There is no limitation on how many private Uber, Lyft or Sidecar drivers can operate in a city.
“We do not have any jurisdictional authority over ridesharing companies,” said Rob Schupp, spokesman for MTS. Any additional regulations would need to be established by the PUC, he said.
MTS and the San Diego Police Department did issue a statement on the companies this summer, just before Comic-Con.
The release simply announced that ridesharing companies aren’t subject to the same regulations as taxis, “to let people know of issues or services that are potentially unsafe.”
Schupp said there’s no discussion of MTS implementing any additional regulations on ridesharing companies.
If you’ve seen a group of young people stepping out of a black town car with tinted windows, acting like Burt Reynolds or something, they were probably using Uber.
It’s basically a taxi service, except you summon a driver to your exact location through your phone—some even call it “e-hailing.” Then you can actually watch the little icon of a black town car make its way across a map of the city to wherever you’re standing.
It’s a bit more expensive than a normal taxi – presumably the price of convenience and comfort. There are three service levels, based on the driver’s car: a typical sedan, a town car or a large SUV, like an Escalade. The base fares range from $2.50 to $15, with per-mile or per-minute charges tacked on top, just like a taxi.
Uber expanded to San Diego in the summer of 2012, its 10th U.S. city at the time. Part of the reason for that expansion, as the company’s CEO told Techcrunch.com at the time, was because San Diego is a car-centric city, where driving is the fastest way to get most places, and there are comparatively few taxis in the city, with only 0.55 per 1,000 people.
Chances are you’ve seen a Lyft car driving around, but thought you were looking at a neighbor with unusual style choices. They’re the cars with fuzzy pink mustaches on the front grill.
Once again, users request rides on-demand using a smart phone app. The driver heads to the location to which it was e-hailed and the user can track the progress in real time.
It came to San Diego in July of this year, its sixth market at the time.
But when the service launched, unlike Uber, its drivers requested “donations” instead of fares. Earlier this fall, Lyft switched to a standard fare service. Before, drivers would quote a suggested price, and users could pay more, or less (or nothing). Now, the company has switched to a standard minimum, above which users can tip drivers, but the fare calculation isn’t publicly available.
In Los Angeles, the company is now using a 25 percent tip system, but only during high ridership times, like around dinnertime on a Friday night.
That’s similar to a feature Uber calls “surge pricing.” The company can increase fares, modestly or dramatically, at certain times, based on demand or to make it more worthwhile for drivers to work, such as during bad weather.
It’s pretty easy to become a Lyft driver, too. As long as you’re over 23, own a working four-door car made after 2000, and have a smartphone, you’re eligible. They’ll do phone and in-person interviews and conduct background and DMV checks before hiring you, however.
The company takes 20 percent of each ride, while drivers are left with the remaining 80 percent. And you set your own hours.
Sidecar works a lot like Lyft. Until recently, it had donation-based pricing. One additional feature: Users can send their trip to a friend, who can also keep track in real time of how close they are to reaching their destination.
When Sidecare announced it was doing away with its donation model, it said it did so to help encourage drivers to work more often. It also said at the time its fares were 20 to 40 percent cheaper than taxis.
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