Lyft and Uber made San Francisco traffic miserable. Voters hope to correct that

Rideshare companies are “cannibalizing public transportation,” one expert noted, adding, "this tax makes sense"

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published November 6, 2019 6:00PM (EST)

The Lyft logo is displayed on a car on March 11, 2019 in San Francisco, California. On-demand transportation company Lyft has filed paperwork for its initial public offering that is expected to value the company at up to $25 billion.  (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
The Lyft logo is displayed on a car on March 11, 2019 in San Francisco, California. On-demand transportation company Lyft has filed paperwork for its initial public offering that is expected to value the company at up to $25 billion. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The roads in San Francisco are about to get a little friendlier — or so voters hope — thanks to a measure on this week's ballot known as Proposition D. The tax proposal, which will very modestly tax rideshare rides like Uber and Lyft, is intended to encourage San Franciscans to take public transportation or walk, and ease congestion at the same time.

While the vote count is not final yet, according to precinct results on Wednesday (whh do not count mail-in ballot counts) Proposition D has far more than enough support to pass. Once confirmed, Proposition D will add a 1.5 percent surcharge on shared rides and 3.25 percent on solo rides with ride-hailing apps in the city. Such a hike will total around 10 to 20 cents for a shared ride like an Uber Pool or Lyft Line, and about 40 to 60 cents for a solo ride in an Uber or Lyft vehicle.

This revenue will generate an estimated $30 to $34 million each year that will go toward public transportation goals, like hiring more Muni drivers and buying more buses and trains. Moreover, about half of the funds will be designated for walking and biking safety projects to make streets safer for pedestrian and bicycles.

“Prop D was ultimately about equity, and ensuring the ride-share industry pays their fair share to help us mitigate the congestion TNCs [Transportation Network Companies] are causing on our streets," San Francisco Board of Supervisor member Aaron Peskin told Salon via email. "Data clearly shows that TNCs account for 50 percent of the increase in traffic over the last few years — it also clearly shows that the best way to get people out of cars is to provide affordable, safe and reliable alternatives, like public transit and biking."

The measure comes at a time when San Francisco is seeing more cars injuring and killing pedestrians. According to Walk SF, the city’s pedestrian safety advocacy organization, by August of this year 15 people had been killed while walking or biking in San Francisco. That may stem in part from the increase in congestion caused by a surfeit of rideshare vehicles on San Francisco's roads; according to a study in Science Advances, Uber and Lyft have significantly worsened traffic in the city where the ridesharing phenomenon began. Between 2010 and 2016, the city’s traffic congestion increased 60 percent, with rideshare apps responsible for more than half of that. 

Proposition D will add San Francisco to the list of cities that has special taxes for rideshares. In January, New York imposed an extra $2.75 tax on ride-hailing services to raise money for mass transit, a tax that applies to all rides in Manhattan. Chicago has a similar tax, too.

Ken Jacobs, the chair UC Berkeley Center for Labor Research and Education Institute for Research on Labor and Employment, told Salon the there is “good evidence” that rideshare companies are “cannibalizing public transportation,” adding that taxing these companies “makes sense.”

“Uber and Lyft’s prospectus state clearly that their success depends on taking over market share from public transportation,” Jacobs told Salon in an email. “While this may work for those who can afford to use TNCs [Transportation Network Companies] if public transportation is starved for funds and cut back as a result it will have a negative effect on those who rely on our buses and trains.” 

Jacobs was referring to a document that Uber filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, in which the company said that part of its growth strategy was not just to get people out of private cars but to get them off public transportation.

“We believe we can continue to grow the number of trips taken with our Ridesharing products and replace personal vehicle ownership and usage and public transportation one use case at a time, including through continued investment in our affordable Ridesharing options, such as Uber Bus and Express POOL,” the document stated.

Interestingly, Uber and Lyft support the proposition — unlike the state's decision to have the companies treat their oft-exploited contractors as employees and issue them benefits, a law that both companies have vowed to fight. The tax from this proposition does not directly help contractors for these companies or regulate their ability to be exploited.

Some cities, such as Los Angeles, are eyeing additional measures to further protect their drivers' livelihoods. The Los Angeles City Council voted in October to proceed with an independent study on the average wages and business expenses of the city’s rideshare drivers, and review policies around the country. The motion also asked the city attorney to draft an ordinance that would set the minimum wage for rideshare drivers to $30, suggesting that drivers will need an additional $15 per hour to pay for business expenses like gas. 

On the East Coast in New York City, more than 96,000 drivers joined together to sue Uber, claiming it unlawfully deducted millions of dollars in fees from them. 

“Uber bosses are raking in millions while drivers struggle to feed their families,” Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the Taxi Workers Alliance, said in a statement reported by  The Verge. “Uber’s business model depends on exploiting vulnerable low-wage workers — including by stealing from driver pay. But time and time again, when workers fight back, we beat Uber even with all their billions.”

Will Uber and Lyft be able to survive what’s next? As Saba Waheed, a research director at the UCLA Labor Center, previously told Salon: “If it’s not them, someone will pick it up and figure out how to do it.”

"[Ridesharing] doesn’t need to go away, but it doesn’t need to have the elements it has right now,” Waheed said. “It can’t have the working conditions it has for drivers, because clearly drivers are going through a revolving door.”

In the meantime, Peskin said he hopes this measure will be a model for other California cities.

" I know other jurisdictions in California are watching this race closely, so I hope that San Francisco has modeled for the rest of the state what is possible," Peskin said.

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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