Less than a year after Houston began regulating so-called transportation network companies, questions persist about safety assurances from Uber, the city’s sole entrant in the field. Uber is testing local officials’ good graces by criticizing the rules it agreed to follow and lobbying for the state to supplant them. In certain instances, Uber has failed to abide by rules that Houston changed to accommodate the company.
Some drivers, meanwhile, say Uber is squeezing them, saturating the market so it’s impossible for most to make a living wage.
“They want to own Houston, and they will,” said one driver, who asked not to be identified because she feared the company would disable her account. “But those of us out here, doing the work… we won’t see a dime they don’t want us to have.”
Yet none of the company’s problems – not even the highly publicized case of a driver accused of sexually assaulting a passenger in Houston – seems to have dented its popularity.
“I use it everywhere,” said Sami Tamska, 30, who moved to Houston last year. “Here, Dallas, whenever I go anywhere. It’s all the same.”
The enthusiasm of customers like Tamska suggests that Uber is likely here to stay. What remains to be seen is how the rules of the road will continue to evolve for the company, and what that will mean for consumers.
“Innovation has gotten out ahead of the public policy environment,” said Susan Shaheen, co-director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California-Berkeley. “Things haven’t changed in 100 years in this industry, and suddenly, it’s changing rapidly, and I think everyone is still figuring out what that means.”
That includes city officials in Houston, who went through a rigorous process to try to assure customer safety without stifling innovation. Rather than accept Uber’s background checks, the city demanded drivers go through the same, more rigorous process as cab drivers.
Less than six months into the new system, Uber acknowledged hundreds of its drivers were not licensed to drive in Houston and were removed from the platform only after an unlicensed driver with a federal prison record was accused of sexually assaulting a passenger.
In Houston, at least for now, Uber is undercutting cab prices. A typical ride from Bush Intercontinental Airport to downtown in a taxi could top $60, compared to around $40 in UberX, the company’s least-expensive option. Taxi fares, however, are standard and predictable, while Uber often increases its rates when demand is highest.
With Uber’s entry, on top of 2,446 permitted taxi cabs, the number of people offering rides for money is unclear. Uber, via court filings, has resisted public release of information on how many trips it has provided or its number of drivers, calling the data a trade secret.
“It’s safe to assume there are thousands (of drivers),” said Duane Kamins, owner of Lone Star Cab Company, part of a legacy industry that lobbied hard to prevent Uber’s entry into Houston.
It’s a good story, though I can’t say I learned a whole lot of things I didn’t already know. Given that this is the first part of a four-part series, here are some topics I’d like to see explored in the others:
– San Antonio has revisited its vehicles for hire ordinance, as its original version caused both Uber and Lyft to leave town. Lyft has since promised to return there, but it does not operate in Houston as it did not care for Houston’s background check requirements. Does anyone on either side regret Lyft not being here? Do any of the Mayoral candidates think revisiting Houston’s ordinance is a good idea?
– There was an effort in the Lege last session to create statewide regulations on vehicles for hire, which would have overridden city ordinances, at least in its initial form. One can reasonably expect a similar bill to be filed in 2017. What if anything did the city of Houston do to affect the outcome of the 2015 bill, filed by Rep. Chris Paddie? What if anything would the Mayoral candidates do in 2017 when the next such bill gets filed?
– How much business have the cab companies really lost, and how much of Uber’s business here in town is new users? How does this compare to other Texas cities?
– Uber drivers in Dallas recently went on strike to protest new rules promulgated by Uber about fares for UberBlack drivers. What do Houston UberBlack drivers think about this? What if any role should city regulators play in such disputes?
– Is there any local data to corroborate or refute recent claims that ridesharing companies have a positive effect on DUI homicide rates? I know it’s way too early to draw any conclusions, I’m just looking for anecdotal evidence.
What questions would you like to see examined?