June 22nd, 2015


Executive Board Member, San Francisco Taxi Workers Alliance

Acting Executive Director, TransForm

Head of Public Policy & Business Development, Getaround

Chairman of the Board, San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency

Staff Reporter, San Francisco Examiner


It might be a stretch to imagine most Americans giving up their beloved Malibus, Mustangs and Broncos. But for those who would just as soon leave the car at home, there are more options than ever. With a growing menu of ala carte wheels to choose from, it’s up to us to decide how we want to roll around our cities.

Personal mobility was the focus of a recent discussion at the Commonwealth Club. Tom Nolan, chair of San Francisco’s Municipal Transportation Agency, was on hand to talk about how the MTA is responding to the needs of a growing, moving population.  

“We believe that every mode of transportation in San Francisco is actually under the jurisdiction of the MTA,” Nolan stated. “Bicycles, pedestrians, taxis, all of it, PCOs, garages -- everything is there.”  

“We have an extraordinary opportunity to deal with each piece of this and try to make it much more of a transit-friendly city,” he continued. “Sometime soon, hopefully, the very last thing you'll think about when you're going somewhere is getting your own private car, because Muni will be so good, reliable, on time, all of that. “

Bicycle paths and pedestrian-friendly areas are also part of Muni’s overall plan. Nolan cited Market Street as an example of the city’s progress towards meeting carbon reduction goals. “Ten years ago, for every one bicycle out there, there are three cars; it's exactly the opposite now.”  

One way to relieve transportation woes is to upend the traditional suburban commute.

“We need to make sure that more people can live close to transit,” says Jeff Hobson of the transportation advocacy group TransForm. “This is a tough place to drive to and to park to. It's a lot more sensible of a place to walk or bike or take transit to.  

“If we make it more possible for more people to live in neighborhoods like these, then we're going to have a positive impact on the climate,” Hobson added, “and really, it's nicer to live in environments like that.”

With more and more options for getting around, says Hobson, people will begin to see the cars parked in their garage as an idle, and perhaps unnecessary, asset.

“When transportation is that "per use" thing, I think people are smart,” Hobson says. “People are going to use the right option for the right trip.”

Taxis, ride-hail apps, car- and bike-sharing are all “part of the whole universe of having lots of options. That's what you really need to do to be able to live a full vibrant life without a car….we are in the process of reconstructing our cities, rebuilding how we live our lives in ways where we don't have to have a car.”

Getaround is a ride-sharing company founded partly to address car overpopulation. Their research, claims Getaround’s Padden Murphy, shows that most people use their car less than 25% of the time, and that “basically, every car-share vehicle can potentially eliminate nine to 13 other cars from the road.”

And all that impromptu carpooling could be good for the environment. “We have about 250 million personal automobiles in the US,” continues Murphy. “If we convert a fraction of those vehicles to car share vehicles, we can take a pretty huge number of them off the road – and put a pretty significant dent in our collective carbon output.”

Indeed, the MTA last year threw its support behind the movement by dedicating 900 discounted street parking spaces to car-sharing companies.

Ozzie Arce was recruited for the panel after giving host Greg Dalton a ride the previous day. Arce is funding his post-graduate studies as a Lyft driver. But for his own city-surfing, he says, he’s more apt to rely on public transportation.

Not everyone is happy about the ride-share revolution; the rise in app-based services has sparked protest from the taxicab industry. Taxi driver Chakib Ayadi voiced concern over the proliferation of unregulated and relatively inexperienced drivers. “We want them to be regulated, have their proper registration and the proper insurance for the safety of the public and the bicyclist or pedestrian,” Ayadi said. “We want them to make sure that those drivers are professionals, they know their way around, they pay their taxes.” And, he added, “We want the city to know how many exactly are out there…that creates a lot of traffic and lot of congestion.”

Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez, who covers transportation issues for the San Francisco Examiner, concurs that there are concerns about casual drivers, among them minimal training and the question of criminal background checks.

“One of the benefits Uber and Lyft will tout is that anyone can just drive a few extra hours in their week and make a few extra bucks,” says Rodriguez. “But the tradeoff …is you get someone who doesn’t necessarily have that level of experience or training. The training for Uber and Lyft usually consist mostly of videos….whereas taxis provide about a day’s worth or a week’s worth of training.”

In addition, Rodriguez reports, both companies are currently locking horns with the Public Utilities Commission on whether they should have to release driver location information. “The state is interested to know, not just about congestion, but also about our communities of color being redlined. Will they answer a hail in the Bayview? They want to know this and for that they need the data. And that’s a struggle that’s happening right now.”

It remains to be seen how these and other issues will be resolved, but as of now, it appears the ride-hail services aren’t going anywhere. And as part of the new “sharing economy,” they’ll continue to give the taxi companies a run for their money – and riders another reason to curb their cars for good.


Related Links:


SFMTA: Projects & Planning

SFMTA: Car Sharing Information and Resources

SFGate: Car-Sharing Firms Getting 900 SF Street Parking Spaces

SF Examiner: Report Says SF Taxis Suffering Greatly

The Metropolitan Revolution – Brookings Institution

Study: Fewer young people getting driver’s license


- Anny Celsi
June 22, 2015
The Commonwealth Club of California
Photos by Alyssa Kjar