Taxis in Berkeley. Photo: Nick
Taxi drivers in Berkeley are asking for rules to govern ride-sharing competitors. Photo: Nick

A Berkeley councilman has asked the city to require ride-sharing companies to have business licenses and safety standards, and wants protection for disabled access to be part of those new rules.

Similar discussions about regulating the ride-sharing industry — which was popularized by companies such as Uber, Lyft and Sidecar — are going on around the country in San Francisco, San Jose, Seattle and Chicago, among other cities. The California legislature has also taken the matter into its own hands, and a bill that passed both the Assembly and Senate is, as of late last month, waiting for the governor’s approval.

In the meantime, Berkeley Councilman Kriss Worthington has asked the city manager to look into the regulation of ride-sharing businesses within the city. Currently, he said, no local rules exist. Worthington originally brought his proposal to the Berkeley City Council in July, but it was held over. Tuesday night, council agreed to have the city keep an eye on the state legislation and bring back the matter at the end of the month.

Worthington wants to require ride-sharing companies to get business licenses, which would bring more money, via fees, into city coffers. He said it’s also a safety issue.

“The current situation presents risks to riders, drivers, taxi drivers, and the city,” he writes. “Without appropriate regulations of the rideshare industry, rideshare drivers run the risk of getting dropped by their insurance company, not receiving payment or reimbursement for damage claims, and committing insurance fraud.”

Of primary concern to him, he said Wednesday, is the one to two dozen letters he has received from members of the disabled community who told him they have been refused service from ride-sharing drivers who said they are not regulated by ADA standards.

“I got emails from so many disabled people about this,” he said. “Blind people with dogs who they refused to pick up. People in wheelchairs who were told: ‘We can’t help you, call a taxi.’”

That issue came up in San Francisco earlier this year, according to the San Francisco Examiner, because taxis with wheelchair access reportedly declined steeply — from 1,400 to fewer than 600 — as drivers turned in their expensive medallions to work instead for ride-sharing companies.

Worthington says the status quo in Berkeley with existing ride-sharing companies “has created controversy and unfairness to the traditional taxicab industry, which is held to stricter regulatory controls.”

Two taxi drivers attended Tuesday night’s council meeting and asked the city to support stricter rules.

Berkeley Taxi Cab Association representative Ali Saïd said, by his count, there are more than 40 unlicensed ride-share drivers working in Berkeley at any given time. These drivers have taken more than 70% of the business from licensed taxi drivers, he added.

“This group — I call them ‘the cowboys of the wilderness’ — don’t pay to the coffers of the city,” he told council. “They don’t have commercial insurance. They don’t go for safety inspection, and they don’t have background check.”

Saïd said the city needs to create stricter measures to stop the unlicensed drivers from operating illegally.

“It is wrong,” he said. “We pay everything, they don’t pay nothing. They take our business. So where do we stand?”

In his item, Worthington described efforts by the city of Chicago to regulate ride-sharing by requiring drivers to secure a chauffeur license — costing $10,000 to $25,000 depending on how much they work — and undergo background checks. He said Seattle, too, is tackling the issue, by licensing the drivers and forcing them to follow certain rules.

Some cities have banned them altogether. As of March, according to the Examiner, “At least seven [cities] have prohibited companies like Uber and Lyft, including New York City; Portland, Ore.; and Philadelphia.” Eight other cities were considering their own regulations.

The California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has already established some regulations for ride-sharing companies “to ensure that public safety is not compromised by the operation of transportation services that use an online-enabled platform to connect passengers with drivers who use their personal, non-commercial vehicles.”

Last September, the panel established 28 rules to govern “charter party passenger carriers” who work for “Transportation Network Companies” such as Lyft, Sidecar and Uber. The CPUC has claimed jurisdiction for all such companies in the state.

Those rules require companies to get a license from the commission, undergo a criminal background check, establish a driver training program and hold commercial liability insurance, among other regulations.The CPUC said it would revisit its rules after a year to see if adjustments were needed, and plans to discuss the matter again after more data is submitted this month.

Worthington said Wednesday that the CPUC rules left many unanswered questions, which led to state legislation — AB 2293 — that passed in the Senate and Assembly, and is waiting for the governor’s approval.

After negotiations, that bill also received the support of Uber and Lyft, according to the LA Times, and is expected to be signed into law. The bill would allow insurance companies to create new commercial policies that specifically target drivers for ride-sharing companies.

Worthington said he’d rather have ride-sharing regulated by the state but, if too many questions remain if and when the bill is passed, he’ll push for Berkeley to make its own rules, particularly regarding disabled access.

Worthington also said he finds the “sharing economy” idea that is a key tenet of companies such as Uber and Lyft “intriguing and very fascinating,” but added that it shouldn’t be used as an excuse to avoid access regulations.

“The claim that they’re exempt from the ADA is what made me work so hard on this,” he said. “Disabled people should not be discriminated against by old school corporations or by the sharing economy. That gets my dander up.”

Worthington said council will receive a report back from the city manager Sept. 30 with an update about the state bill. Council may at that time consider whether additional action is needed.

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Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...