photo via Greg Gilbert/Seattle Times … Lyft cars are marked by their distinctive pink “mustaches”
A curious fight is underway in Seattle right now, as the city tries to figure out how to deal with “ride-share” companies like Uber and Lyft. The Seattle Times has a fairly balanced article on the issue, which discusses that the main point of contention currently is the fact that Uber and Lyft drivers are “unlicensed” cab drivers, for all intents and purposes. From the Times:
Habitu Sallehu pays hundreds of dollars a year to be a legal for-hire cabdriver in Seattle. The fees help pay for detailed city inspections of his records, his Toyota Prius, and the entire for-hire industry.
Lately, the 43-year-old Ethiopian émigré has seen drivers offering the same services as he does in cars with furry, hot-pink mustaches attached to their grills. But the drivers for that company, Lyft, and a second outfit, Sidecar, operate without any licensing or inspections from the city.
A third service, UBERx, also allows unlicensed drivers and vehicles into its ride-sharing fleet. The city says their lack of licenses makes the services of all three companies illegal and potentially dangerous.
The reason for Uber and Lyft’s increased popularity? Because they targeted the demographics of Seattle correctly, selling their whole service on it’s use of smartphone technologies. For either company, riders schedule their ride through the company’s custom app, and, in both cases, take care of their payment method through that same app. Or more simply put: Uber and Lyft et al innovated in the free market and are now threatening one of the favored monopolies of the government/State : transportation.
The Times points out the taxi cab companies “preferred” status if you will, and the government’s overregulation of the industry, has been going on for decades:
Seattle Councilmember Sally Clark said she’s impressed with the innovative approach to offering quick, affordable transportation in dense, urban areas, but she and other council members are on the fence about whether Seattle should find a way to make their services legal, as is. The current taxi and for-hire cab industry has been highly regulated in Seattle for decades, with caps placed on the number of licenses available and expensive fees used to fund the monitoring of drivers.
That paragraph does a lovely job of the inherent hypocrisy of government: they push for the masses to adopt more “environmentally conscious” modes of transportation, and when companies spring up to provide just such a thing, well, they still have to “pay to play”, as it were. LOL.
Also contained within our referenced Times article is a fun little section on for-hire drivers. Again, the market responds to consumer needs, and these for-hire drivers are one of the responses. Private business people attempting to make a better life for themselves and their families, while also attempting to better the quality of life for Seattle residents. What’s the government/State response? Heavy- handed and profit-killing as usual:
Meanwhile, three city inspectors actively fine legal for-hire drivers for violations all the time, said the president of East Side For Hire, Samatar Guled. Sting operations sometimes catch for-hire drivers picking up people who flag them down, something only licensed taxi drivers are allowed to do.
Police also fine them. Last month, for instance, a police officer pulled Sallehu over in the South Lake Union area when he saw a woman open Sallehu’s door at an intersection where he was stopped, then walk away. The officer interpreted it as Sallehu trying to solicit an illegal ride, according to a police report, and gave him a $513 ticket.
Guled thinks Sallehu can fight the ticket, but still views the scrutiny of his actions as harassment and, in light of the city’s dismissiveness toward unlicensed drivers, discrimination.
“Which is more safe: a driver who is licensed or a completely unlicensed car and driver?” Guled asked. “I don’t like to bring up race, but we’re almost all East African immigrants trying to play by the rules and the city is coming after us. Why is that?”
Hey may have a point, as, at least with my experiences in interacting with Uber, they mostly appear to be educated, upper-middle class white kids etc. But, I’m also a bit disinclined to take anyone seriously when their first reaction is RACISM!
Regardless, the next bit of the story is probably the *real* crux of this burgeoning fight: Namely, the taxi cab companies are feeling tense because their government sanctioned transportation monopoly is being threatened by these new upstarts:
The influx of unregulated ride-sharing services has hit taxi drivers hard too, said Tommy Key, general manager of Yellow Cab’s Puget Sound Dispatch.
“The drivers feel if they are being regulated by the city so hard and paying all these fees, these people need to be doing the same to level the playing field,” Key said.
It should also be noted that public transportation has been a big fight in the greater Seattle metro area for the past two years or so, as King County Metro, the main transit service for urban Seattle, has been facing serious financial issues due to the effects of the Great Recession. So not only are Uber/Lyft et al threatening the for-hire drivers and established taxi companies, they’re also threatening the State’s *own* transportation infrastructure and monopoly.
One also has to wonder if the Zipcar program has any affect on this particular fight as well. For those unfamiliar with Zipcars, they’re essentially enviro-friendly cars that Seattle residents can “rent” for specified amounts of time for a fee. In essence, it’s the same idea motivating Uber, Lyft et al. And hell, Zipcar even announced its partnership with the City of Seattle back in 2009, extending it’s services to all 10k city employees.
It will be curious to see how the city responds to this fight. Again, one of it’s favored monopolies in transportation is under attack from a free-market innovation. Instead of embracing this and attempting to make sure these businesses continue to be successful, the state’s response, as always, is to attempt to impose “control” , either in the name of “safety” or “fairness.”
Or, more simply: