SAN DIEGO — San Diego is loosening nearly a dozen taxi regulations to help the slumping industry survive during the COVID-19 pandemic and become more competitive with app-based ride services like Uber and Lyft.
The number of city taxi permits has plummeted 45 percent since 2016, from 1,249 permits for cabs to 693. Industry leaders say there are only about 350 cabs operating during the pandemic, which has shrunk local tourism and decreased airport taxi rides.

Akbar Majid of San Diego Yellow Cab, a 30-year veteran of the local taxi industry, said the situation has become more dire during the pandemic than many realize.

“The number of active taxicabs on the street has dropped to an all-time low of 350 from a high of nearly 1,300,” he said. “It is absolutely imperative that some of these antiquated regulations should be updated in order for us to weather the storm.”

The City Council voted unanimously Tuesday in favor of looser regulations. They include lowering requirements for experience for cab drivers, easing parking rules and allowing the use of older vehicles, among other issues.

Two council members said the city will eventually need to revise the fees San Diego taxis can charge customers, to make the playing field more even with Uber and Lyft.

Taxi industry leaders praised the looser rules as a key step. But they also complained about a new Airport Authority policy allowing Uber and Lyft drivers to queue at the airport like taxis, instead of being summoned by smartphone apps.

The looser city taxi regulations come six years after San Diego deregulated its taxi industry, lifting a longtime cap on the number of taxi permits with hopes that would allow local drivers to become more like operators of small businesses.

The move polarized the local taxi community, with some predicting more prosperity for cab drivers and others predicting that more permits would saturate the market and hurt nearly every driver.

The answer remains a mystery, because the emergence of Uber and Lyft devastated the local industry by sharply shrinking demand for traditional taxis.

Councilman Scott Sherman said he views the looser regulations as a smart second step after deregulation. He said taxi rate changes must come next, especially the maximum and minimum rates of fare.

“I really think that’s where we should be focusing next,” said Sherman, noting that Uber and Lyft have more flexibility on price. “Their competition doesn’t have that set parameter on what their fares can be.”

Council President Georgette Gómez, whose council district includes more local cab drivers than any other, agreed.

“The rate is very critical,” she said. “If we’re continuing to be open and supporting the industry, I think that’s one of the areas we should really take a look at.”

Industry leaders told the council Tuesday that another pressing problem is the Airport Authority’s pilot project allowing Uber and Lyft drivers to queue at the airport.

The project allows the app-based companies to wait at the airport’s transportation islands for up to 15 minutes for a customer, said Adrian Kwiatkowski, spokesman for a large group of taxi drivers that calls itself the Transportation Alliance Group.

“Unfortunately our airport continues to allow Uber and Lyft to enhance their operations,” he said. “If it dispatches like a taxi, idles like a taxi and waits like a taxi with passengers queueing like a taxi, then it should be regulated.”

Peter Zschiesch of the United Taxi Workers said many other local taxi drivers share those concerns. He also praised San Diego for recognizing the industry’s recent struggles.

“It’s a different era — there’s tremendous competition,” said Zschiesch. “We don’t have the capital of the giant transportation network companies.”

The rule changes include eliminating a requirement that taxi drivers have previous commercial driving experience, though new drivers will now be required to take a special driving course for taxis.

Taxi drivers also will no longer be required to show proof of adequate financial resources. New drivers will continue to be given updated estimates of operating costs so they understand the financial resources needed to drive a cab.

Taxi companies will no longer be required to dispatch cabs from a storefront 24 hours a day. Under the looser rules, dispatching must come from a storefront during business hours, with company officials available by phone 24 hours a day.

The looser rules also eliminate a requirement that cabs be parked off-street when not in service, and that they have satellite map systems on board. Officials said there have been no complaints about cab parking on streets, and cabbies now use smartphones for satellite mapping.

Taxi drivers also will no longer be required to install security cameras.

In addition, vehicles will no longer be required to be less than 10 years old, and salvaged vehicles will be allowed. Officials said they would continue to require annual vehicle inspections to ensure vehicle safety.

The Metropolitan Transportation System, which oversees the local cab industry for the city, will implement the new rules.

The MTS Taxicab Advisory Committee approved the looser rules last week. They will be presented to the full MTS board for final approval on Nov. 12.

*By David Garrick via San Diego Union Tribune*