Uber Car driver Sam Pevzner prepares Thursday to be dispatched to a call for a ride near the company's office on Sixth Street. (Photo by Daniel Archuleta)

Several Santa Monica council members expressed an interest in reshaping a state code that governs ride-hailing apps like Lyft and Uber, at a City Council meeting last week.

The California Public Utilities Commission (PUC) is the authority on vehicles for hire like those operating in transportation network companies (TNCs) as is the case for ride-hailing apps.

Council members were frustrated that they cannot, for instance, require Uber drivers to submit to fingerprint background checks like the ones Santa Monica taxi drivers are required to undergo. They also disliked the fact that they have no control over the emission standards placed on Uber or Lyft vehicles.

“I like the suggestion that we might want to weigh in on the PUC process and show that we cities do care about control,” said Councilmember Sue Himmelrich. “I don’t know if that would make a difference but if it would, we ought to give it a shot.”

Mayor Pro Tempore Tony Vazquez, who was particularly concerned about the quality of the ride-hailing companies’ background checks, agreed.

“I would like to really push on the PUC process,” he said. “I know, in talking to some of the folks in Sacramento, that they’re looking some stronger regulations statewide that would probably supersede some of things we’re doing locally and I think we should get involved with that, especially as we look at the background checks.”

Eyal Gutentag, general manager for Uber in Los Angeles, which just signed a 10-year lease on a 40,000-square-foot office on Ocean Avenue, told council that Uber’s background checks, because they rely on court documents, are more reliable than a fingerprint scan.

Vazquez vehemently disagreed, noting that background checks had failed to pick up on his past “minor infractions” but that a fingerprint check did catch them.

Mayor Kevin McKeown was most animated in his desire for more regulation of ride-hailing companies. An Uber driver, who spoke during public testimony, described cruising slowly along Ocean Avenue, hoping to be the closest driver to whichever rider requests a pick-up via GPS.

“That overall business model is just horrible for air quality and traffic congestion,” he said, “and I don’t know what the California Public Utilities Commission was thinking — maybe this was never brought up to them — but I would hope we will become active lobbyists in their process and I don’t want to end the availability of TNCs but I certainly want to mitigate the impact that they apparently are currently having on our traffic congestion and our air quality.”

Gutentag refuted those claims earlier in the night, pointing out that Uber drivers rarely hang out in areas where they aren’t getting fares and that Uber, in general, leads to a reduction in, among other things, time wasted searching for parking.

“It’s our belief that we’re being regulated aggressively by the state PUC,” he said. “You may not agree but trust me they’re pretty onerous regulations.”

McKeown called Uber’s intenctivisation the trawling practice “corporate irresponsibility” and expressed a desire to work with the PUC to regulate ride-hailing companies rather than reduce the number of cabs that are allowed to operate in the city — a strategy that will likely be considered later this year.


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