City Council member Mike O'Brien.

At a meeting of the city council's special taxi committee yesterday, council members appeared to be leaning toward the least-restrictive plan to regulate ridesharing companies like UberX and Lyft, which would allow ridesharing companies to continue operating while also requiring rideshare drivers to get a special for-hire vehicle license, a process that currently requires drivers to take a multi-day course that costs several hundred dollars.

(The other two options, as we reported yesterday, would have either shut down ridesharing services entirely or require both ridesharing drivers and their vehicles to get a special license—similar to what California did when it recently legalized ridesharing services.)

With ridesharing, unlike traditional taxis, users can locate available nearby drivers and book a ride using a smartphone app. Drivers with UberX, which is affiliated with the black-car company Uber, are more likely to be full-time drivers with for-hire vehicle licenses; drivers with Lyft (the pink-mustache people) are more likely to be part-time drivers with regular civilian licenses.

The proposal would also expand the number of official "taxi" licenses in the city and allow ridesharing drivers to convert to taxi licenses if they meet a new set of standards (which remain to-be-determined) for experience and safety.

Under a subset of requirements the council was also leaning toward yesterday, the new rules would give drivers some time to get a for-hire license—a stopgap measure so that rideshare companies aren't immediately put out of business in the city—and would impose new rules around insurance, inspections, and fees to cover the cost of the regulations, among other new requirements. It would also require companies like UberX and Lyft to get licenses with the city certifying that their drivers met minimum vehicle and insurance requirements.

Supporters of these less-restrictive regulations, including council president Sally Clark (who also heads up the taxi committee) and council member Mike O'Brien, argued that rideshare users (whose stated goal is to allow ordinary citizens to share their cars with strangers for a fee, reducing the number of single-occupancy cars on the road) are nothing like full-time taxi drivers. "I feel like a lot has changed in the last 25 years," O'Brien said. "Today, we're pretty overregulated."

O'Brien added that he'd like to see the rules for-hire vehicles (cars that charge a flat fee and are only supposed to respond to calls, not hails) and taxis merged so that both would operate under the same rules. "I don't think that disparity between the two markets should go on much longer."  

Of the three committee members, only Bruce Harrell (who has consistently argued that ridesharing services are effectively the same thing as taxis) wanted to put ridesharing services out of business, at least temporarily, and regulate them like taxis.

Pointing out that ridesharing drivers are currently committing misdemeanors (because they're operating without proper for-hire licenses or inspections from the city), he said, "We have an incredible ability to shape or limit that service. ... I'd rather try to put the genie a little bit back in the bottle as we come up with this new regulatory scheme, rather than let it continue. ... You're issuing a finite number of licenses for taxis and for for-hires, and you're saying under rideshare, it's wide open, just get this darn license. I don't think this makes policy sense."

Clark countered that if ridesharing "really does just become a new, cheaper way to run around as a taxi all the time—12 hours a day in one shift and 12 hours a day in the second shift—this isn’t going to work. The problem is, we’re not going to know that for a while," because ridesharing hasn't been legalized and regulated yet.

"I personally would not see a reason to shut them down in this interim time period," Clark added. 

The council's central staff plans to get legislation to the council in about a month, although the process will be slowed down by the city's annual budget review, which wraps up just before Thanksgiving. 

Josh here, editorializing: Three cheers for Clark and O'Brien for recognizing that times are changing and that so-called "share economy" options—which promote a more nimble, efficient, and networked form of commerce that's not just green but necessary in these frugal times—are the right move for Seattle.

And extra applause for O'Brien, who could be parting ways with his ally Mayor Mike McGinn on this issue; even though share economy principles, particularly ride-sharing, are a current tenet of the green urbanist vision McGinn promotes, the taxi industry is a big McGinn contibutor and McGinn has not led on this zeitgeist issue.


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