Seattle City Council held another meeting this week to discuss new regulations for taxis and non-taxi alternative services—namely, for-hire cars and social media-powered ride-sharing services from companies like Lyft and Sidecar.
The task at hand for Seattle City Council is figuring out how to adjust regulations to reconcile traditional taxi and for-hire car services with the convenience of ride sharing—which currently operates unregulated and illegally—or shut down the ride-sharing services entirely.
Each driving service, though similar in nature, has a different set of regulations (or lack thereof, in the case of ride sharing). Taxis have long been government-regulated; they have regulated fares, must have specially licensed drivers, and are limited to 936 cars total in the city and county. They have to undergo regular car inspections and safety checks, and have strict insurance rating requirements. Other than the additional 45 wheelchair-accessible licenses issued in 2010, the number of regular taxi licenses have stayed the same for 23 years, so drivers who wish to enter the industry must buy a license from an existing taxi driver on the black market—which can often be sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars.
For-hire cars, such as town cars and limousines, are also licensed by the city, and have the same safety regulations. In contrast to taxis, though, their numbers are unlimited and fares can be prearranged; also, they cannot legally pick up people who flag them down (known as flagging rights) in the city (though they can outside the city, but within the realms of the county). A limited number of for-hire-cars and taxis are allowed to pick up from the airport.
Ride-sharing companies do their own background-checks on drivers and require drivers to have insurance, but are completely unregulated by the government.
Big aside: We admit to being advocates of the so-called "share economy" (or Josh does, anyway) where: A) companies make their assets, such as cars, available to members (see Car2Go); or B) companies provide a network that allows members to profit off their own assets (the type of companies we're talking about here, such as Lyft, that allow people with their own cars to compete with taxis).
Frankly, we (i.e. Josh) love these DIY models that not only add efficiency to the marketplace, but also add a dash of democracy to capitalism. (PubliCola itself is part of this 21st Century phenomenon; populist blogging platforms allowed us to start this site and eventually become part of the legit media establishment.) Thus, we acknowledge that we're rooting for the Council to find a way to keep the ride-share services in place with a compromise that doesn't squash the essence of the new model.
With that in mind, we asked all the players what they want the council to do. And if a compromise was possible.
Sam Guled, a representative from the for-hire services, stuck to the soundbite they had at this week's council meeting, saying he'd like "a level playing field" for all parties. He called both taxi services and ride-sharing services "extremes"; taxi drivers, he said, have had a monopoly on these driver services for years, having more flexibility to pick up riders on the streets; ride-sharing, by being an unregulated service, doesn't have the same safety standards and takes away the livelihood of taxi and for-hire car drivers.
Dawn Gerhart of Teamsters Local 117, representing taxi drivers, also said she'd like to see "a level playing field" in the industry and the removal of impediments to fair competition. She said the taxi drivers don't necessarily have a problem with competition, but they would like to see the elimination of separate for-hire classification in licensing—supposedly because taxi drivers have more rigorous safety regulations than for-hire drivers. However, after comparing regulations between taxi and for-hire services, that doesn't seem to be true.
So what would be a viable compromise here?
Both Guled and Gerhart said they would be willing to take away the license classification distinction between taxi and for-hire drivers if that meant they would undergo the same regulations and have the same rights (i.e. flagging) and payment system with meters. They also believe ride-sharing services should be regulated to have comparable safety regulations.
We're still waiting to hear back from Lyft.
UPDATE: Lyft spokesperson Erin Simpson said ride-sharing, taxis, and for-hire cars "can and should exist together," particularly because studies have shown a demand for more transportation options in Seattle.
She said that since public safety is the company's number one priority, they are not opposed to government regulations to ensure safety. That said, she believes the task is not really finding a compromise, but working together to provide safe, complementary transportation options in Seattle.