In a ride-hailing world, taxis are trying to stay relevant — and Pismo wants to help


With the rise of app-based services such as Uber or Lyft, some taxi drivers around the Central Coast are saying it is becoming more and more difficult to do business, especially when compared with their less-strictly-regulated ride-sharing counterparts.

“It makes it a little bit harder to expand to where I wanted to be by now,” said Samuel Orr, owner of Central Coast Taxi. “When one entity is hiring people with no money out of pocket, and the other you have to come up with hundreds of dollars, it just doesn’t look that appealing.”

Because of Orr, Pismo Beach is looking into ways it could address the imbalance, either by lessening fees for taxi drivers or changing how they regulate the services.

Uber opened in San Luis Obispo County in 2014, followed this year by Lyft. Both services allow riders to request a pickup from their location via an app on their phone; fares are set by the company and paid with a saved credit card through the app.

Now that the companies have moved into the county, Orr says he’s noticed a decline in business, especially on typically busy weekend nights.

“It went from weekends just being crazy busy to, with all these extra part-time drivers, it made it to where weekends were just OK,” he said. “They were good still — just not where they used to be. In the beginning it would be me and my other driver working a Friday or Saturday night, and now it’s just me, and I can handle it all on my own. It’s busy, but it’s less.”

Orr has been a taxi driver in the area for 12 years and has owned Central Coast Taxi for three of those. His company currently employs two drivers other than him, with the trio splitting daytime and nighttime pickups.

He noted that he does think there is a place for ride-sharing businesses in the county — he just wants to even the playing field.

Pismo Beach’s permitting process for taxi services includes a public hearing before the City Council in which the council issues a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity allowing them to legally operate in the city. Individual drivers also have to be licensed by the city, through a separate application and background investigation process, including fingerprinting, reference checks and vehicle inspections.

The process is costly for drivers, and can range between $112 and $486 up front, city staff said Tuesday night. Other cities in the area have similar permitting requirements — and each driver is required to be permitted in every city that it operates in.

“It adds up,” Orr said. “For a new driver, it can cost more than $500 to start out.”

Uber and Lyft drivers, on the other hand, go through a screening process by a third-party company — including background checks — before being approved as drivers, but aren’t charged any fees or required to apply for permits through the city in which they operate.

Technically, ride-hailing service drivers who do not go through the city licensing process are in violation of city code, but other cities that have tried to prohibit the service in their area for this reason have faced harsh opposition both from the companies and from the public.

(Notably, Uber and Lyft withdrew from San Antonio in 2015 after the city passed an ordinance requiring independent ride-share drivers to go through a city-conducted fingerprint background check; several months later, the services returned to the area after the City Council struck a deal with the companies to make the check voluntary.)

The Pismo Beach City Council took up the issue at its meeting Tuesday night, debating whether it wanted to attempt to regulate ride-hailing services, deregulate taxis or decrease fees for taxi drivers.

“It’s pretty straightforward that this man is suffering because he’s followed the laws, the regulations, that we’ve put in place,” Councilwoman Sheila Blake said Tuesday of Orr. “I don’t think anybody really realized what was going to happen with Uber and Lyft and all the other independent carriers.”

The council ultimately decided that regulating ride-hailing services was unrealistic because it is difficult to identify an Uber or Lyft car, and instead directed staff to prepare the necessary documents to decrease the fees for taxi drivers.

“I’m just in favor of leveling the playing field,” Councilwoman Marcia Guthrie said. “We already have Lyft and Uber coming in and doing business here. Then we’ve got someone who goes by the rules, and his cost to do business is so much greater. I just think our municipal code needs to be changed with the time.”

The council will decide on the changes at a future meeting.

Orr said decreasing some of the fees — especially startup costs for new drivers — would go a long way toward helping the industry, though he would ultimately like to see Uber and Lyft drivers regulated through the city in the same way taxi drivers are.

“That’s better than nothing,” he said of the fees.

Kaytlyn Leslie: 805-781-7928, @kaytyleslie