Cars sit in the garage of American Cab Company, in Thousand Palms, Calif., on Friday, June 20, 2014. / Zoe Meyers/The Desert Sun
PALM SPRINGS, Calif. -- Steve Williams has earned a decent living the past five years driving a red, white and blue taxi around the Coachella Valley, but he said encroaching competition has put his livelihood at risk.
The 45-year-old driver for American Cab sees hope in efforts to beef up regulations for upstart companies like Uber and Lyft, even if it comes too late for the business he lost to them during his busiest time of year.
"In this industry," Williams said, "unlike your typical paycheck, where you know what you're getting every week, you bank on those three months - February, March, April."
California gave birth to Uber and other rideshare services that allow people to use smartphone apps to hail rides from drivers in private vehicles. Now as the companies grow, the state is looking at laying down more ground rules.
Bills to enhance insurance and background-check requirements for rideshare drivers have so far sailed through the state Legislature. And this month, the state agency that oversees the rideshares issued a stern letter about violations it says it found at California's largest airports, including two drivers in San Francisco without valid driver's licenses.
"California is the first state that created rules for this industry to promote consumer choice. We will not, however, accept consumer choice at the expense of consumer safety," Michael Peevey, president of the California Public Utilities Commission, wrote in the letter.
At Palm Springs International Airport, rideshares are allowed to drop off passengers but need a city permit for pickups. Williams and others in the cab industry said they routinely see rideshare drivers ignoring the rules.
Palm Springs City Manager David Ready said while it's not possible to catch all violators, airport staff and police do keep a look out and have informed drivers of the permit requirement. As of last week, no written citations had been issued.
San Francisco-based Uber has encouraged customers to use the same devices they use to hail rides to contact lawmakers and tweet opposition to the legislative bills, which nearly unanimously passed the state Assembly in May and won support from a Senate committee last week.
The rideshare industry has said cab companies have been slow to adopt new technologies and are pushing the legislation out of fear of competition.
"The bottom line is that when there is disruption and innovation in an industry, the entrenched special interests dig in and attempt to force the status quo," Michael Beckerman, president and CEO of the trade group The Internet Association, said in a statement posted on the association's website.
Many in the cab industry say safety is at the heart of their concerns over the rideshares. Those in the Coachella Valley note that local cabs are heavily regulated through SunLine Transit Agency, which conducts background checks, sets insurance coverage and enforces other regulations.
"It's about leveling the playing field, but it's more about safety," said American Cab CEO Greg Klibanov, a board member with the Taxicab Paratransit Association of California, an industry group that's lobbied for more state regulations of the rideshare companies.
Uber drivers quietly began offering rides in the Coachella Valley in 2013. The company announced its official arrival to the area in April in the lead-up to the Coachella and Stagecoach music festivals.
April is the busiest month of the year for local cabs, and the number of local rides has been steadily increasing year after year, according to tracking SunLine conducted.
Even with more rideshares drivers on the streets, area cabs gave more than 85,000 rides in April, the most of any month in the past 10 years.
Michael Jones, taxi administrator with SunLine, attributed much of the jump to the extra 100 cabs SunLine brought in for the three festival weekends.
Uber wouldn't say how many of its drivers served the valley during the festivals, but estimates from the cab companies put the number in the thousands.
Read the original story: California toughens up on rideshare upstarts