Rocky road for ride hot­line

Startup help­ing clients with­out smart­phones faces hur­dles

San Francisco Chronicle - - FRONT PAGE - By Carolyn Said

Mike Levin­son of Daly City, who is legally blind and doesn’t have a smart­phone, uses GoGoGrand­par­ent to book ride­hail ser­vices. State reg­u­la­tors are chal­leng­ing the startup.

All Justin Boogaard wanted was to help his grand­mother or­der an Uber ride. Like many older adults, she doesn’t have a smart­phone.

That led to Boogaard’s cre­ation four years ago of San Fran­cisco startup GoGoGrand­par­ent, which pro­vides a toll­free num­ber na­tion­wide and in Canada for re­quest­ing Uber and Lyft rides. GoGo sum­mons the rides on clients’ be­half, con­nect­ing to the com­pa­nies’ ser­vices through soft­ware and adding a 27­cents­a­minute concierge fee per ride on top of the fare.

GoGo said it now has tens of thou­sands of users, who are mainly el­derly or blind, and has made mil­lions of ride re­quests.

But then Cal­i­for­nia reg­u­la­tors is­sued GoGo a $10,000 fine in Fe­bru­ary, say­ing it needed to ap­ply for a per­mit as a for­hire trans­porta­tion com­pany, just like Uber and Lyft.

That would mean lin­ing up mil­lion­dol­lar li­a­bil­ity in­sur­ance and pro­duc­ing lists of all ve­hi­cles and driv­ers, among other re­quire­ments. Boogaard — who terms him­self “pro­fes­sional grand­son” on his email sig­na­ture — said that would be pro­hib­i­tively ex­pen­sive and makes no sense given that

GoGo has no di­rect re­la­tion­ship with driv­ers.

“Our re­sponse was: That’s crazy,” said Tom MacBride, GoGo’s lawyer. “GoGo is just help­ing the per­son or­der a ride; the rider is cov­ered by Uber and Lyft in­sur­ance. The Leg­is­la­ture never in­tended to pi­geon­hole com­pa­nies into reg­u­la­tions they can’t pos­si­bly com­ply with.”

MacBride, a San Fran­cisco at­tor­ney, took the case pro bono be­cause of its po­ten­tial to hurt the whole cat­e­gory of sim­i­lar ser­vices of­fered by hos­pi­tals, se­nior cen­ters, public agen­cies and other en­ti­ties that ar­range rides on clients’ be­half.

“It’s a slip­pery slope,” he said.

A di­vi­sion of the Cal­i­for­nia Public Util­i­ties Com­mis­sion that brought the GoGo ac­tion wrote in le­gal fil­ings that it “rec­om­mends the com­mis­sion ... de­velop reg­u­la­tions for GoGo and other trans­porta­tion providers that sub­con­tract” with Uber and Lyft.

That’s a huge and grow­ing cat­e­gory. Uber and Lyft of­fer pro­grams — Uber Health, Uber Cen­tral, Lyft Concierge and Lyft Busi­ness for Health­care — that al­low or­ga­ni­za­tions to ar­range rides for their clients. Both de­scribe them as giv­ing rides to thou­sands of pa­tients a day.

Lyft, which de­clined to com­ment on the GoGo case and its ram­i­fi­ca­tions, notes that Concierge has signed up health care com­pa­nies in­clud­ing CareMore, CareLinx, Na­tional MedTrans Net­work, Amer­i­can Med­i­cal Re­sponse and Den­ver Health Hos­pi­tal, as well as car deal­er­ships and tour op­er­a­tors.

Uber, which also de­clined to com­ment, de­scribes Uber Health as part­ner­ing with “health care or­ga­ni­za­tions of all shapes and sizes to ar­range trans­porta­tion for both pa­tients and care­givers.”

For many se­niors, ride­hail­ing is not eas­ily ac­ces­si­ble. Only 53% of Amer­i­cans older than 65 own a smart­phone, ac­cord­ing to the Pew Re­search Cen­ter. In the gen­eral pop­u­la­tion, 81% of adults have the de­vices. Pew also re­ported that 24% of Amer­i­cans older than 50 have used ride­hail­ing ser­vices, com­pared with 36% among all adults.

David Lin­de­man, di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Tech­nol­ogy and Ag­ing at UC Berke­ley, views pro­grams like GoGo as crit­i­cal for pro­vid­ing “au­ton­omy and in­de­pen­dence for older adults, peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties and peo­ple re­cov­er­ing from ill­ness.”

“It is un­for­tu­nate that a tech­nol­ogy so­lu­tion that cre­ates a win­win for pa­tients, fam­i­lies and providers would be con­strained,” he said. “The abil­ity of in­di­vid­u­als to par­tic­i­pate in so­cial ac­tiv­i­ties in a timely, low­cost way is grow­ing dra­mat­i­cally” through var­i­ous tech­nol­ogy so­lu­tions, in­clud­ing GoGo, he said.

Mike Levin­son, 67, of Daly City, a re­tired com­puter pro­gram­mer who is legally blind and doesn’t have a smart­phone, said he finds GoGo very help­ful to sup­ple­ment para­tran­sit, which re­quires up to a week’s ad­vance no­tice.

“I can sched­ule a same­day trip and mod­ify it that day, which is very con­ve­nient,” he said. If GoGo went out of busi­ness, “it would vir­tu­ally elim­i­nate my abil­ity to have same­day rides with­out tak­ing a reg­u­lar cab, and it would re­duce the flex­i­bil­ity I have to change ride plans.” A cab is more ex­pen­sive, he added.

In the GoGo case, after a June hear­ing, Hal­lie Yack­nin, an ad­min­is­tra­tive law judge with the state util­i­ties com­mis­sion, wrote a de­ci­sion in Au­gust agree­ing with GoGo’s con­tention that it’s not a trans­porta­tion com­pany, and that Lyft and Uber’s in­sur­ance cov­ers pas­sen­gers who booked rides via GoGo. She said the ci­ta­tion should be dis­missed.

The judge called com­mis­sion ar­gu­ments that GoGo was en­gaged in the trans­porta­tion of peo­ple “ab­surd.”

“There is no ra­tio­nal ba­sis to re­quire GoGo to main­tain li­a­bil­ity in­sur­ance as an ad­di­tional source of com­pen­sa­tion in the event of a pas­sen­ger in­jury,” she wrote.

Un­der com­mis­sion pro­ce­dures, that de­ci­sion was placed on its con­sent agenda, slated to be adopted by the full com­mis­sion with­out fur­ther dis­cus­sion. But the mat­ter was in­ex­pli­ca­bly post­poned three times. It’s now on the Dec. 5 cal­en­dar.

Ter­rie Pros­per, a com­mis­sion spokes­woman, said in an email that agenda items are of­ten held for fur­ther con­sid­er­a­tion.

That was dis­puted by MacBride, who has spe­cial­ized in util­i­ties com­mis­sion cases for 44 years.

While a sin­gle hold may oc­cur, he said, “a se­ries of holds is un­usual and is usu­ally re­served for big­ticket rate­set­ting or pol­icy mat­ters.” Re­peated holds are par­tic­u­larly un­com­mon in ci­ta­tion mat­ters such as the GoGo case, which are sup­posed to be per­func­tory.

MacBride said he’s par­tic­u­larly trou­bled that the holds may be caused by com­mis­sion staff re­quest­ing them from a com­mis­sioner. That would be a vi­o­la­tion of due process, he said.

The Con­sumer Protection and En­force­ment Di­vi­sion, which re­quested the fines, “can be a pros­e­cu­tor or it can be an ad­viser, but it can’t be both,” he said. “The bot­tom line is that GoGo is pre­cluded from re­spond­ing to any­thing (that di­vi­sion) is say­ing in­ter­nally at the com­mis­sion.”

Boog­ard said he fears that the holds show “some­thing is hap­pen­ing behind the scenes that in this case could spell doom for GoGo.”

San­ti­ago Mejia / The Chron­i­cle

San­ti­ago Mejia / The Chron­i­cle

Mike Levin­son of Daly City, who is legally blind and sum­mons rides through GoGoGrand­par­ent, pre­pares to board an Uber.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.