Clogged streets: 45,000 Uber and Lyft drivers in San Francisco grab lawmakers' attention

If you've been in San Francisco lately, the good news is that you're not going to have any trouble finding a ride to your doctor's appointment or a lift home from your friend's birthday party.

The bad news is that while Uber and Lyft rides abound, the ease of finding transportation comes at a cost: It seems like traffic is even more nightmarish in the city, and some days, it seems as though you can barely step off the sidewalk without ride-sharing drivers circling the curbs like sharks.

Because of the growing popularity - and traffic congestion - that ride-sharing brings, some leaders are now demanding more information, and possibly more regulation, of this new economy. Within the last month, San Francisco's city attorney and a state senator demanded more transparency in ride-hailing data.

Attention to the issue couldn't come too soon for Tom Lawless, a longtime resident who owns a painting business in the city. "I feel a lot of stress. It's emotionally draining just to try to get to work," Lawless said, adding that he's never taken an Uber anywhere. "These Uber drivers just flood the streets with people who don't know where they are going. I think the concept of ordering a car on a smartphone is a fine idea. But I've got a problem with the number of drivers and their lack of training."

These anecdotal complaints have gotten the attention of San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera. Last week, his office released information for the first time about the number of Uber and Lyft drivers estimated to be working in the city: 45,000. To compare, 1,500 taxi medallions were given out last year, according to the city's Treasurer & Tax Collector.

For perspective, Bruce Schaller, an urban transportation expert, said there are about 55,000 Uber, Lyft and other ride-sharing drivers in New York City, a metropolis of 8 million people, eight times the size of San Francisco. (To be fair, Schaller also said there are also 13,000 cab drivers in the Big Apple.)

Schaller says this "unsustainable" ride-sharing pattern is occurring in many major cities including Los Angeles and Boston. "If this goes on," he told KTVU by phone, "you'll simply have gridlock. You'll be able to get an Uber. But then you won't be able to get anywhere."

The San Francisco County Transportation Authority released a study on Tuesday showing that ride-hailing services account for 170,000 daily rides in San Francisco -15 percent of all the trips citywide in neighborhoods that already have public transit options. In response, Sen. Scott Weiner (D-San Francisco) on Tuesday credited Uber and Lyft for allowing people to live without cars. But he also said that in light of this statistic, "we need to do more to address the impacts of these services...It's important to look at the big picture."

The sheer volume of drivers and rides per day are staggering.

While not all the drivers are on Market or Folsom streets at the same time, the growing number of drivers in a city that's 47 square miles is a cause of growing frustration - even for people who use Uber and Lyft, companies both founded in San Francisco. Of the 45,000 drivers cited by the city, however, Uber pointed out that more than half its drivers say they work less than 10 hours a week .

Still, even if the majority of drivers are part time, one woman recently was overheard at a party complaining it took her eons to get to CVS in the Presidio because there were so many Uber drivers on the road. Every other car in the city seems to have an Uber or Lyft sticker in the window shield. And don't get San Franciscans started on double parking, even though Wiener pointed out that there are plenty of other drivers in the city who park illegally.

And there seems to be no end in sight.

The California Public Utilities Commission, the body that regulates Transportation Network Companies or TNCs, has no regulations or limits on the number of Uber or Lyft drivers in the state. A spokesman did not indicate to KTVU that the agency was planning on regulating the number any time soon.

And while it's unclear if Herrera has the power to cap the number of ride-sharing drivers in the city, his office did announce last week that he subpoenaed documents from the CPUC as well as information from the privately held ride-sharing companies in an effort to make sure they are following "existing law," his spokesman John Cote said. That includes properly compensating drivers, providing services to the disabled, paying their city permit fees. "We're looking at a multitude of different ways to reduce congestion and increase traffic safety in the city," Cote said.

Herrera is demanding information in eight categories spanning four years including: Miles and hours logged by drivers, incentives that encourage drivers to commute from as far away as Los Angeles, driver training, effect on traffic congestion, effect on public transit operations, service to people with disabilities, effect on greenhouse gas emissions and the effect on parking in San Francisco. The move comes after Herrera sued Uber in May asking the company to provide business records containing driver contact information.

At this point only 19,200 Uber and Lyft drivers have taken out a $91 permit, as they are required to do.

"No one disputes the convenience of the ride-hailing industry, but that convenience evaporates when you're stuck in traffic behind a double-parked Uber or Lyft, or when you can't get a ride because the vehicle isn't accessible to someone with a disability or because the algorithm disfavors the neighborhood where you live," Herrera said in a press release. "The status quo is not working. Convenience for some cannot trump the rights of every San Francisco resident and visitor, including the safe enjoyment of our roads and bike lanes. This is a period of historic growth in San Francisco, but our streets can't get any wider. We need to strike the right balance. Our action today aims to protect San Franciscans by ensuring that these companies comply with state and local law."

Lyft responded to Herrera in an emailed statement: "We are currently reviewing the subpoena, but Lyft has always been focused on improving transportation access for people across all cities in which we operate. In San Francisco, nearly 30 percent of rides take place in underserved neighborhoods and 20 percent of Lyft rides begin or end at a public transit station. We also have a track record of working collaboratively with policymakers who regulate us, including the CPUC here in California, to ensure that our service complements existing transportation options."

Uber also issued a similar statement: "We're more than happy to work with the City to address congestion, but it should be a comprehensive solution including construction, the city's population increase, and the rise of online delivery services. According to the SFMTA, TNCs represent just 2% of rides in San Francisco and the city's stated goal is to encourage more shared rides. Also, given the fact that the city posts home addresses of drivers on its public website, we have serious concerns about providing personal data that the City refuses to protect."

For its part, CPUC spokesman Christopher Chow also said the agency will review Herrera's request and "provide all the public records responsive to the request that are not exempt."

The San Francisco MTA survey in 2015 did indeed show that ride-sharing took up 2 percent of the transportation modes in the city, driving alone took up 30 percent, and public transit took up 24 percent. Carpooling, walking, bicycling and taking a taxi took up the rest. Those numbers, however, are more than two years old. And while the SFMTA report did acknowledge that its long-term goals are to "make transit, walking, bicycling, taxi, ridesharing and carsharing the preferred means of travel," the clogged streets are definitely gripes being heard around the city.

But if San Francisco follows New York City's lead, it's unlikely the number of ride-sharing drivers will soon drop off from cruising the Haight, the Castro or the Financial District. And it's unclear whether lawmakers will actually do anything about it.

In 2015, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio agreed to drop the city's plan to place a cap on the number of vehicles Uber operates in the city after seeking all sorts of information and convening a task force to study the issue for months. And this spring, state lawmakers in Albany allowed Uber and Lyft to expand in upstate New York.
Schaller, the transportation expert, said the ride-sharing companies did intense lobbying and supported candidates who were pro-Uber during the election season.

Schaller isn't against ride-sharing - and neither is Herrera, Wiener, and many San Franciscans who use Uber but are also tired of the clogged streets. Schaller is now trying to come up with a solution for New York City on how to ease the congestion in the buroughs and Manhattan. "I'd like to come up with a way to make these operations as efficient as possible," he said, "and reduce the amount of time the drivers spend without passengers in their cars in between trips. They could still give service but with less of an impact."

That sounds like a solution that would work well in San Francisco, too. Dina Westland, who is annoyed with some ride-sharing practices, gets why the idea of hailing a ride on your phone in a matter of minutes is popular. She, too, finds herself in a Catch 22.

"I use it all the time," she said. "And so, I tell myself I'm mentally OK with them double parking if I'm going to use the service."

KTVU's Sal Castaneda contributed to this report.