Four months after Mayor Ed Murray rejected the city council's original legislation regulating taxis and ridesharing companies (such as Uber and Lyft), which would have made Seattle the only city in the country to put a cap on the number of rideshare vehicles on the road, the council adopted a compromise today that was crafted by a Murray-appointed group of stakeholders in mid-June, that eliminates the caps and legalizes ridesharing in Seattle.

In February, the council adopted new rules that would have limited the number of drivers for ridesharing companies, AKA "transit network companies," or TNCs, on the road at any given time to 150. (The legislation did a lot more than that, but the cap was the most contentious part of the proposal.) Murray, saying he opposed the cap, put the legislation on hold and hammered out a no-cap compromise that also increased the number of taxi licenses in the city and allowed two-tone "for-hire" vehicles to pick up passengers who hail them on the street.

Today, after reviewing that compromise the council adopted it largely intact.

The proposal passed 8-1, with council member Mike O'Brien (not—surprise!–Kshama Sawant) the lone "no" vote. O'Brien wanted the legislation to go back to committee, arguing that the council hadn't had time to fully consider the many amendments (A through M!) that came up on the dais today.

The legislation, at more than 100 pages, is complex, but here are the basics: It gives companies like Uber and Lyft the right to operate legally, with no caps on the number of drivers on the road at a given time, as long as their drivers get a for-hire vehicle license and follow a list of rules. It also requires ridesharing companies to take out a $100,000 commercial insurance policy while drivers are simply logged on to a company's system and looking for customers, until the end of the next legislative session. However, that insurance will only kick in if a driver's own insurance declines to cover the cost of an accident.

"I hope that by the end of this session we can get a great new product that only applies when [a driver is] on the app. But my fear is that when we don't have that clarity, the person who loses is always the victim of the accident."

It gives taxi companies 200 new licenses, and gives taxi owners the right to actually own their licenses, the way New York City cab drivers own their "medallions," allowing cabbies to borrow against the value of their medallions to maintain and improve their cars. The legislation also creates a 10-cent surcharge on all rides to help "offset the higher operational costs of wheelchair accessible taxi services for owners and operators."

And for-hire drivers can now  pick up people who hail them on the street, as opposed to only being allowed to respond to calls. 

Now, for the points of contention. The biggest debate was whether the mandatory $100,000 insurance policy should be "primary" (that is, apply instead of a driver's personal liability insurance) for accidents that occur while a driver is logged in and seeking customers. Council member O'Brien argued that it should, pointing to an accident in California in which an Uber driver killed a six-year-old girl and gave the girl's mother brain damage while logged in to the Uber app. Because only the driver's personal insurance coverage applied, the family received just $15,000. 
Responding to opponents, including Rep. Cyrus Habib (D-48), who testified that insurance should be left up to the state legislature, and Uber general manager Brooke Steger, who insisted, "It is a great insurance policy," O'Brien said, "I applaud the folks that are trying to change the industry so that we get new clarity, and I hope that by the end of this session we can get a great new product that only applies when [a driver is] on the app. But my fear is that when we don't have that clarity, the person who loses is always the victim of the accident."
The other point of contention was whether for-hire drivers whose cars are painted "yellow, orange, and/or green, or any combination thereof" should be required to repaint their fleets of cars, to avoid confusing riders who might think they're traditional taxicabs.
To that, council member Sally Bagshaw countered, "I really do want to put the burden back on the company, not the driver, but I also want to support innovation. … I want to promote what council member O'Brien is saying in principle, but I do not want to delay this agreement," which has been more than a year in the making. 

O'Brien's amendment failed, but it was close—5 to 4, with Nick Licata, Bruce Harrell, Sawant, and O'Brien voting "yes." 
Two other contentious amendments failed, both from Harrell. The first would have allowed cab drivers licensed only by the county to pick up workers whose companies had contracts with the taxicab association inside the city of Seattle (currently, county-licensed cabs can only operate outside the city.)
Harrell argued that his amendment would reduce "deadheading"—when cabs drive into Seattle from outside the city, then are forced to drive back to the county limits without passengers. Speaking in opposition, council president Tim Burgess pointed out that there are already 352 dual-licensed cabs that can operate in both the city and the county, and that allowing only county-licensed cabs to operate freely would give them an unfair advantage over city cabs, which can only operate in Seattle. That proposal failed 6-3, with Bagshaw, O'Brien, and Harrell voting for it. 
The other point of contention was whether for-hire drivers whose cars are painted "yellow, orange, and/or green, or any combination thereof" should be required to repaint their fleets of cars, to avoid confusing riders who might think they're traditional taxicabs.
After a long and spirited debate that included a discussion about what constitutes, for example, "green," Harrell's amendment that would have removed that requirement failed along the same lines as his deadheading proposal. But it did give him a chance to point out the absurdity of arguing over whether people might be confused over whether a cab is a traditional taxi or a ridesharing vehicle. "A person's going to say, are you a taxi? Are you a for-hire? Well, take me there anyway." Ultimately, a ride's a ride.
Seattle Met and PubliCola deliver breaking news and essential updates from around the Northwest. See an example!