The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency board of directors voted this week to extend a pilot program allowing taxi e-hail applications, such as Flywheel, to begin dispatching trips that originate from third party companies like Uber, deepening a complex relationship between ride-hailing apps and taxis in San Francisco.

The board voted unanimously to approve the amendment, which alters the taxi fare model to allow third-party entities to set fare prices, as opposed to using the traditional taxi meter rates.

Several taxi drivers at the meeting expressed concerns over the fact that certain details of the pilot program were not yet finalized, including how much taxi drivers will pay Uber following rides. They also criticized the model for allowing Uber to set rates that could differentiate from the regulated taxi meter rate.

Flywheel users may have already noticed changes in the app in recent weeks. They’re now required to input a drop-off destination ahead of the ride and are then provided with an estimate for the fare.

Uber users will soon have the option of riding with a taxi upon selecting an UberX ride. Flywheel taxis will join Uber’s supply of drivers in San Francisco and can pick up passengers if their vehicle is nearby. The taxi driver will have the option to accept or deny rides connected through Uber.

Describing it as a “strategic partnership,” Flywheel spearheaded the initiative after witnessing how Uber acquired the U.K.-based taxi booking and dispatch tech company Autocab in the summer of 2020. (Uber also began an “unlikely alliance” with New York’s iconic yellow taxis in March 2022, the New York Times reported.) Recognizing an opportunity to “modernize” the taxi industry, Flywheel approached the taxis, access and mobility services division of the SFMTA to foster this partnership.

“We think we can align with our competitors,” Hansu Kim, president of Flywheel, said during public comment. “We’d like to take passengers from those services with a worldwide demand and bring them to the taxi industry. It’s a change for the better.”

Kim’s optimistic outlook was not echoed by members of the San Francisco Taxi Workers Alliance (SFTWA) and San Francisco Labor Council, who spoke out against the partnership during Tuesday’s meeting.

“I’m concerned about the lack of transparency and I’m sad they haven’t worked out all the rules before putting them into effect,” said Barry Taranto, a cab driver and member of the SFTWA. “Working with a company that exploits workers is a huge problem. If they treat their own drivers poorly, imagine how they’ll treat us.”

Speaking to SFGATE prior to the meeting, Taranto worried how much taxi drivers will pay in commissions to companies like Uber.

“I’m concerned about what percentage Uber is going to take from the ride,” he said, adding that the figure 15% had been mentioned. “Flywheel already takes 10% of the ride and 3.5% of the ride plus the tip.”

During her presentation to the board, Kate Toran, SFMTA director of taxis, access and mobility services, explained how the department is establishing dashboards to track the metrics gathered on these rides. She said that all the data will flow back to SFMTA, which will allow them to track driver and customer experiences. This information will be used to tweak the program as needed, and the department decided to remain hands off to gauge the outcomes without restrictions, she said

The pilot for the partnership begins without establishing regulations around Uber’s commissions.

SFMTA Director Fiona Hinze asked whether Uber would take a cut of the fares. “We haven’t developed specific rules on that,” Toran said.

“That’s something that will require a deeper understanding,” Hinze noted.

During public comment, Benjamin Valis, a taxi driver for Veterans Cab, decried how certain rules of the program were not yet finalized and could come at the cost of his livelihood. “If you believe in a living wage in San Francisco, make this work at taxi meter rates,” he said.

Uber representatives were also present at the meeting, and following the vote, they congratulated Kim of Flywheel.

It is a significant turnaround for the relationship between the two companies. Flywheel sued Uber for antitrust violations in 2016. Today, their partnership is seen as a gain for both entities.

Andrew Macdonald, senior vice president of mobility and business operations for Uber, told investors earlier this year how taxis and other street-hail vehicles are now part of the company’s vision for growth.

“Now, I understand the irony here. The Uber guy is telling you that taxis are the future,” he said. “But when we look at the next five years, we just don’t see a world in which taxis and Uber exist separately. There’s too much to gain for both sides. That’s why we’ve set a very ambitious goal to put every taxi on Uber by 2025.”

*By Silas Valentino, 

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