Did San Antonio Set the Stage for a Statewide Ride-Hail Debate?

Did San Antonio Set the Stage for a Statewide Ride-Hail Debate?
City of San Antonio | File Photo
The capital of Texas has long been seen as a trend-setting tech hub in the Lone Star State.

However, in the less flashy world of local governance and regulation, San Antonio may be ahead of Austin, Houston and Dallas in its approach to ride-hailing companies like Uber and Lyft.

When the ride-hailing companies launched in Texas over the past two years, no city governments had crafted regulations for the companies, which didn't fit into the traditional vehicle-for-hire box — like taxi companies, which have vehemently fought ride-hailing companies who they say offer the same service without all the hoops taxis have to jump through.

In the spring of 2014, Lyft led the way in Austin, but the company launched without city approval and was eventually banned, along with Uber, which launched in the capital a short time later. Roughly a year ago, Austin's city council eased its fight, allowing ride-hailing companies to operate. Last week, Austin policy makers approved requiring drivers to pass finger-print based background checks. Now Uber and Lyft are warning that they may cease operations in the city.

Sound familiar?

Around this time last year, city council amended its vehicle-for-hire ordinance to include regulations for Lyft and Uber. Part of the new rules meant that drivers needed finger-print based background checks. So the companies threatened to leave the city, and followed through about three months later. That move came two months before a mayoral election, and bringing the companies back became a regular campaign talking point.

However, over the summer, San Antonio's city council worked out a compromise with the companies: a 9-month pilot program with a driver option for finger-print based background checks that provide those who pass with a city-certified badge in the ride-hail applications. Lyft immediately agreed to return when city council narrowly approved the pilot program in August, and Uber returned in October.

As Austin returns to its ride-hail debate, the city can look to San Antonio for a compromise that keeps the companies operating. Dallas and Houston, which have their own ride-hail fights, can also consider the Alamo City's approach. 

In Texas, San Antonio is at the forefront of figuring out how to deal with disruptive companies that change the way people consume a product, challenging conventional industries. But it will be interesting to see what city council will do once the 9-month pilot program expires, because once that timeline is up, it's not clear what the companies status in the Alamo City will be.


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