Lyft in Santa Monica. Photo courtesy of Lyft.
Lyft in Santa Monica. Photo courtesy of Lyft.

With the rising popularity of transportation apps such as Uber and Lyft and alternative lodging sites akin to Airbnb comes a challenge for cities: to regulate or not to regulate? Mayor Pam O’Connor joined the mayors of the other Westside cities in discussing this and other technology and city-related subjects at a Westside Urban Forum panel last week.

West Hollywood Mayor Abbe Land summed up the problem for policy makers as one of public safety. It is difficult for cities to regulate Uber and Lyft as they regulate more conventional taxis and car-share services—but are they safe for citizens to use? Unlike  taxis and hotels, cities do not receive any revenue from licenses from these services.

“It’s like with Amazon—we didn’t jump on them quickly enough to charge taxes so they can charge less for their goods because they don’t have to pay,” Land said.

Uber lets users schedule a ride from a professional driver through a mobile app and coordinate payment online. Lyft  is a rideshare app that connects regular-citizen drivers (who have cars with pink mustaches) with people in need of rides and also offers payment through its app. Airbnb allows people to make their house, apartment, or room available for short or longer-term stays.

O’Connor was slightly less concerned than Land with the regulation issue, though she did say the California Public Utilities Commission was looking into the matter. She saw the apps as a positive addition to the transportation network in Santa Monica because they offer more choices.

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Taxis, and taxi-like services, in particular could help cities with the “first-mile, last-mile” problem with public transportation. Trains and bus routes generally do a good job of getting people within a mile or two of their home or destination, but a poor job of travelling the full distance. Taxis or Uber and Lyft can repair that missing link.

“They enable people to say, ‘I don’t need to take my car,’” O’Connor said. “Mobile technology gives them the confidence they need to get around. With real-time info, they can get over the fear of being stranded somewhere [without access to a car or a bus].”

Indeed, Airbnb—provided it does not interfere with hotel occupancy—is good for Santa Monica, O’Connor said. It helps people who use it to afford to pay their rent and stay in their Santa Monica apartments. Both West Hollywood and Culver City mayors reported no change in hotel occupancy as a result of Airbnb, perhaps because hotels cater to different markets. However, Beverly Hills Mayor John Mirisch said people pay to live in peace and quiet in Beverly Hills and “someone running a B&B next door is not what they signed up for.”

In response to this month’s Santa Monica Next Salon series question—which apps help you navigate life in Santa Monica?—O’Connor said she is all about transit apps. She uses Google Maps transit trip planner most frequently, especially when she’s traveling to other cities. She said she finds it useful to also just download bus schedules on her phone. Big Blue Bus does not yet have an app available with real-time data.

As for providing places for developers of these and other apps and start-up tech companies to work, O’Connor said, Westside cities offer amenities that many other cities don’t. Santa Monica employs 20,000 people in tech-related industries. She said areas like the Third Street Promenade are vital places for community members and office workers alike.

“We focus on quality of life,” O’Connor said. “I moved here from Flint, Michigan, and since I’ve lived here we’ve made an investment in making the city livable. We support people in their pursuits.”

The challenge for Santa Monica is to make sure these tech companies not only benefit from the amenities, but contribute to them as well. For example, the controversial Bergamot Transit Village, which was approved by the city council two weeks ago, includes 370,000 square feet of creative office space with a mix of residences, community-serving retail, public space, green space, and streets and sidewalks to bisect the “superblock” the site now creates. If overturned, the developer could decide, without city council approval, to expand the current offices at the site at 26th and Olympic Boulevard to 310,000 square feet with no community amenities.

“There may be a referendum on this project,” O’Connor said, referring to the move by project opponents to get enough signatures for the issue to appear on the ballot. “But it could be, if it passes, that this becomes an internal campus for some company.”