The SideCar mobile app allows passengers to request pickup and drop-off locations. The orange cars on the app's map show the location of other SideCar drivers around the city. Photo by Talal Ansari.

Barely 30 seconds after Shawna Haner adjusted her rearview mirror, tinkered with the temperature in her car and turned on the SideCar mobile app on her dashboard-mounted smartphone, the phone made a noise.

The sound meant that a nearby passenger had requested a pickup, and Haner accepted. In that moment, with her hands at the 10 and 2 position on the steering wheel, she became what SideCar calls a “community driver.”

Haner is part of a new ridesharing service, launched in June, that allows people who need a ride to use a smartphone app to request one from SideCar drivers. Like other SideCar drivers, Haner is an ordinary car-owning San Franciscan, prescreened by the company before being given the green light to provide rides.

But rideshare services like SideCar and competitors Uber and Lyft are running into legal speed bumps along the way. The California Public Utilities Commission sent cease and desist letters to all three companies in August, claiming they are “transportation carriers” that lack the required permits to operate in California. The CPUC fined the companies $20,000 each on Nov. 14. They have 20 days to pay the fine or appeal.

SideCar resists classification as a transportation carrier, stating in a press release that applying the term to its business is akin to saying that “Airbnb [is] a hotel chain, Travelocity is an airline, or that eBay is a store.” SideCar drivers are not professionals, the company argues, and payment for rides is voluntary. The SideCar app tells passengers what other riders have paid for similar trips, based on over 50,000 rides.

Jack Hagan, director of CPUC’s Consumer Protection and Safety Division, called the issue a matter of public safety in a press release announcing the fine. “If something happens to a passenger while in transport with Lyft, SideCar, or Uber, it is the responsibility of the CPUC to have done everything in its power to ensure that the company was operating safely according to state law,” Hagan said.

Haner, 25, believes the issues regarding SideCar’s legality stem from fearful taxi drivers who think SideCar will hurt their business.

“Cabs have so much demand that I don’t think SideCar is big enough to hurt them,” said Haner as she followed the GPS directions to her pick up first passenger. “I don’t want SideCar to be my job; I want it to offset the cost of having a car in the city.”

Haner, a graduate student at San Francisco State University, turns her SideCar app on about twice a week, usually picking up passengers who are traveling to the same destination. Other times she jumps in her car to take a break from working on her master’s thesis on sexuality.

In addition to earning some extra cash, Haner says, providing rides has other benefits for SideCar drivers, from meeting interesting people and learning the best places to eat in the city to becoming an expert on San Francisco’s streets and helping others.

“I’ve picked up people late at night when there’s no cabs around,” said Haner. “They’re so thankful.”

Haner also believes that the system used by SideCar makes the new approach to urban commuting safe.

“It’s not anonymous, people and drivers are rated, the system has their credit card and SideCar monitors if I’m going where I’m supposed to go,” Haner said as she drove through the Broadway Tunnel into North Beach. “And since it’s all by credit card, I’m not carrying cash on me.”

Another advantage: “Women passengers can choose a woman driver if they want.”

As Haner zipped around the city, some of her passengers expressed frustration with traditional taxis.

“They’re terrible,” said Tim Shipman, 25, from the back seat of Haner’s car. He was traveling from the Sunset to the Fillmore. “Even when you call a cab you don’t know if they are going to show up.”

Shipman said he uses SideCar and similar services four to five times a week.

Next Haner picked up Gauri Manglik outside her workplace to take her to a restaurant on Valencia Street in the Mission. Manglik, who recently moved here from New York City, first heard of rideshare services from Twitter. She uses the service up to seven times a week.

“I need to buy a bike,” she said.

The direction SideCar is going has yet to be determined, although in October the company raised $10 million from various investors, including Google Ventures and Zynga CEO Mark Pincus.

In the meantime, drivers like Haner are enjoying the ride, regardless of where it may take them.

I’ll just keep driving,” she said.

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1 Comment

  1. I love the analogy of calling airbnb a hotel chain. Problem is I bet the CPUC never heard of airbnb. Or the Internets for that matter. Their dismal record on PG&E alone should disqualify them for anything related to public safety.

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