Texas police latest to crack down on Uber, Lyft cars

The impoundments Tuesday came about a month after Police Chief William McManus announced that such enforcement could occur if ride-sharing companies didn't cease operations

By Josh Baugh
San Antonio Express-News

SAN ANTONIO, Texas — Police have impounded two cars belonging to drivers who authorities say violated the city's vehicles-for-hire ordinance.

The impoundments Tuesday of the Lyft cars came about a month after Police Chief William McManus announced that such enforcement could occur if Lyft and Uber, two ride-sharing companies that recently began operating in San Antonio, didn't cease operations.

"We told them before that during our enforcement efforts, given all the warnings, we were going to start impounding vehicles," McManus told the San Antonio Express-News on Wednesday.

About a dozen citations had been issued, he said, mostly to Lyft drivers, before Tuesday's sting operation, but they appeared to have had little impact.

Lyft and Uber are two upstart companies that use smartphone apps to connect nonprofessional drivers with passengers looking for rides.

The companies contend they're technology services rather than transportation operations. But others disagree, and officials say that such ride-sharing firms must abide by the same ordinances that apply to taxis.

Nena Barnett, who drives for both Lyft and Uber, was one of two drivers who faced impoundment after giving a ride to an undercover police officer. She detailed her experience in an email to the Express-News.

"At approximately 2:45 p.m. (Tuesday), I received a Lyft request while near UTSA downtown to pick up 'James' at 300 Convent St. My phone was already low, as I was grabbing a drink and ice at McDonald's, but I jumped in my car and placed the phone in the mount, but didn't plug it in. It died just as I arrived on Convent, and hadn't restarted yet, so I pulled up to the passenger hoping he would recognize me as his Lyft (I did not have my moustache on), and he did," she wrote, referring to large plush pink moustaches that are attached to the bumpers of Lyft cars.

"I asked him for the address and he said 412 E. Ninth, and said he would direct me," her email continued. "We proceeded to have a nice conversation about the weather, the Spurs and our city."

Barnett wrote that she was directed to pull into a fenced-in area near a small building beneath Interstate 37.

"I assumed he had to run in and do a quick errand, as many passengers did, so I prepared to wait. He turned to me and said, 'Here's the thing: I'm Gary with the Ground Transportation Unit of the San Antonio Police Department. There are two uniformed officers over there ... and we are going to be issuing you two citations today for operating an illegal taxi service without a permit and we will be impounding your vehicle today.'"

Barnett, who directed questions to a Lyft spokeswoman after sending her email, wrote that she declined to answer the officer's questions about how much money she would have earned from the ride and whether she understood she was operating illegally.

She wrote that she was picked up by another "incognito" Lyft driver a couple of blocks from where she stopped.

Barnett wrote that a second Lyft driver unknowingly picked up the undercover officer and drove to the same end point.

San Francisco-based Lyft spokeswoman Katie Dally confirmed Wednesday that her company stands with its drivers and is covering the expenses for the drivers who faced impoundment here.

Lyft is one of several transportation stakeholders working with city officials to address the current ordinances that make ride-sharing illegal.

"We do believe that if we approach situations like this one positively and collaboratively between ourselves and cities, we can work together with local officials to make sure residents have access to transportation options that are safe, affordable and reliable," Dally said.

Traditional taxi companies are up in arms over Lyft's and Uber's spring launches in San Antonio.

Donning yellow shirts that read "Licensed. Insured. Legal," taxi drivers packed the City Council's Public Safety subcommittee meeting last month, when McManus announced that ride-sharing vehicles could be impounded, and complained that the ride-sharing companies are attempting to skirt local laws that taxis and limos must follow.

Since then, officials have created a task force that includes members from the city, from the taxi industry and from the ride-sharing companies to work on the issue. The group is expected to report back to the council in August.

How quickly there may be an ultimate resolution, however, still is murky.

As long as the ordinance remains in place, the Police Department appears ready to continue ticketing drivers and impounding vehicles. And there doesn't appear to be much appetite by the startup companies to cease operations until a resolution is reached.

"During our enforcement efforts in the public transportation area, should we come across any car or driver that is not operating in accordance with city ordinances, we will impound their vehicle," McManus said.

Mayor Julián Castro could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but he previously told the newspaper he hopes the city can adjust its ordinances to make ride-sharing legal.

Councilman Diego Bernal said he expects the two sides to "put their heads together" to find a successful resolution.

Copyright 2014 the San Antonio Express-News

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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