Illustration by PJ McQuade
When it comes to Uber, Tom Drischler does not mince words. The smartphone app that allows users to hail towncars moved into L.A. last year, disrupting the traditional model of taxi service.
Drischler, the city's taxi administrator, believed Uber and its competitors Lyft and Sidecar were brazenly violating the rules. In emails to colleagues, he referred to the companies "rogue apps" and "scam artists."
"It is not innovation that makes these companies competitive," he wrote in one email, "but their lawlessness."
Since July 1, however, the rogues have had a powerful voice at City Hall. Eric Garcetti has said he wants to be the city's first "high-tech mayor." When he was sworn in, he immediately embraced the ridesharing apps. He also put a muzzle on Tom Drischler.
Drischler had ordered the apps to shut down service in L.A. soon before Garcetti took office. But the day Garcetti took over, his office ordered Drischler to stop talking to the media. That leaves no one to defend or explain the city's regulations, which are still on the books but are not being enforced. Effectively, the city's taxi policy remains in limbo as Drischler and the mayor fight it out behind the scenes.
This week, the state Public Utilities Commission is scheduled to take up a set of regulations that could legitimize Uber and its competitors. Drischler is alarmed by that, but he has been barred from speaking out.
More than 500 pages of emails obtained by the Weekly under the California Public Records Act, however, make his concerns quite clear.
In those emails, Drischler and his colleagues argue that the city's legitimate taxi companies are in danger of going out of business. Drischler also makes a passionate case for regulation, born of 27 years of refereeing the city's taxi wars. Those regulations, he argues, took decades to establish and should not be tossed aside for the sake of the latest iPhone craze.
Up and down the state, city taxi regulators are fighting their own elected officials over ridesharing. The regulators know that Uber is cool, and they are not cool.
In San Francisco, taxi regulator Christiane Hayashi has been outspoken against ridesharing apps -- even as former Mayor Willie Brown has been lobbying for the ridesharing industry and current Mayor Ed Lee declared a special "Lyft Day."
"We are fighting an uphill battle with no support from any direction," Hayashi wrote in one email to Drischler and others in March. "Our policy makers are delighted by these venture capital firms and perceive no value to the preservation of the taxi fleet."
She argued that Lyft's cars, which have distinctive pink mustaches, are cannibalizing legitimate taxi services. "It has reached the point here in SF that nearly every other car on the street has a pink mustache and our taxi industry is, no joke, looking to be on the verge of collapse."
In another email, Hayashi vented her frustration with the state utility commission's support for ridesharing: "Apparently tech press + venture capital + Willie Brown means you can damn well do anything you want in California," she wrote. "This is a disgrace to public service and public process."
As Lyft and Sidecar entered the L.A. market early this year, Drischler began to express similar concerns. The taxi industry is regulated in part to ensure that the city's poor and disabled residents get service. If taxi companies were not required to serve South and East L.A., they would not. Drischler argued that the entry of unregulated competitors undermines that regulatory framework by skimming the most profitable segment of the business.
"The unlicensed apps are taking away a substantial amount of business from taxicabs in the most lucrative areas of the City," he wrote in July. "Unfortunately, the business the franchised taxicab industry does in downtown, Hollywood, the Westside and the airport is crucial to financing their compliance with the requirements the City has placed on them" -- including service to poorer areas and conversion to hybrid cars.
Without that lucrative monopoly in affluent areas, he argued, taxi service in poorer areas is "in very serious jeopardy of collapse."
If the taxi industry were to vanish, he said, the result would be a free-for-all: "Unlicensed operators will be able to charge whatever rates they can get away with. Uninspected, unsafe and uninsured vehicles for hire will be the only option for most consumers. The City will lose millions of dollars in revenue."
"The libertarian ideological notion that taxicab markets should be open to all applicants leads to cutthroat competition, over supply, service deterioration and cost-cutting on public safety -- in a word, lawlessness," Drischler wrote in another email in August. "There will be a wild west, out of control situation."
The rideshare companies view this as overblown doomsaying. They argue that ridesharing can coexist with taxi companies.
"We are not a taxi, and we are not trying to compete with taxis," Sidecar CEO Sunil Paul told the Weekly in July.
They also argue that taxi regulators are too closely aligned with the taxi companies they oversee. And indeed, Drischler's emails show that he keeps in regular contact with Bill Rouse, the general manager of Yellow Cab. (In one email to the city, an Uber representative griped that Uber was first notified of its cease-and-desist letter "in the form of a press release from Yellow Cab.")
Nevertheless, the public debate over ridesharing has been hampered -- at least in L.A. -- by the fact that Drischler has been unable to make his case in public.
The day Garcetti took office, the Department of Transportation had been set to release a press statement denouncing Uber, Lyft and Sidecar. But that afternoon, the mayor's office intervened.
"We need to work on messaging," wrote Nat Gale, the mayor's transportation manager. "The Mayor's Office has a different approach."
From then on, Drischler was barred from talking to the press, and all statements on the subject came from the mayor's office. Yusef Robb, the mayor's spokesman, said that that policy was designed to make things "more streamlined." (Drischler, unsurprisingly, did not respond to a request for comment.)
When the CPUC issued a proposal on July 31 that supported ridesharing, the city Department of Transportation drafted a terse and neutral statement. The mayor's office rejected that one and replaced it with one that was practically gushing in its enthusiasm.
"This is an exciting moment for Los Angeles as we work to embrace technology to improve our transportation options and save people money," Garcetti said in the statement. He also encouraged legal taxi companies to keep up with the pace of innovation.
Drischler did not share Garcetti's enthusiasm. In an email to a council staffer, Drischler said the CPUC proposal would allow rideshare companies to "continue to cherry pick passengers in profitable areas and ignore disabled, low income and elderly passengers. Presumably, those groups can call a cab. As is currently the case, don't hold your breath waiting to see [rideshare apps] servicing Boyle Heights, Pacoima or South L.A."
That response earned Drischler a reprimand from his boss. "What happened to our agreement to meet and confer prior to sending out a written position on the subject matter?" she wrote.