A Different Take on the Ridesharing Rules

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I can certainly understand the rage that the Seattle Council inspired by threatening to severely restrict, if not strangle altogether, a ridesharing option that many people find valuable. However, the problem is not that ridesharing rules will be aligned with conventional taxi rules; instead, the problem is that existing taxi rules are terrible.

The ridesharing proposal actually consists of two components: “safety” regulations that enforce minimum standards for insurance, maintenance, and so on; and a limit on size of the ridesharing fleet, hours driven, etc. Although no set of rules is perfect, there are enough information asymmetries that the case for some health-and-safety regulation is strong.

What’s indefensible is the limits on supply, which are a recipe for both high prices and the shortages and poor service that Andrew experienced. According to a report in The Stranger earlier this year, “The city limits the number of taxi licenses in order to maintain a ‘competitive, safe, fair, and viable’ industry… ‘The concern is if you flood the market with too many cabs, no one will make a living.”

What’s actually keeping taxi drivers from making a living is having to pay a rentier class for the right to drive a cab.  It is the opposite of the “competitive” and “fair” industry the city desires, and completely orthogonal to whether or not it is “safe.” Unfortunately, the decades under the current system means that someone is going to take a hit to make the system better.

If we simply eliminate the cap on licenses, then current license holders take the loss. In some cases, these may turn out to be cartoon villain businessmen; in other cases, they’ll be immigrants who started with nothing and dutifully saved until they no longer had to rent a license. The second option to take the hit is taxpayers; the government could simply buy out license holders at current market prices. The third option is to maintain the status quo, which screws consumers and non-license owning operators.

Seattle last experimented with taxi deregulation in 1979 — and the experiment was not a happy one. I would summarize the three core complaints in the report as (i) rates increased, although less than the very high inflation rate at the time; (ii) there were too many taxicabs, clogging up the airport and the approaches to King Street Station; and (iii) opaque prices due to rider ignorance, preventing the price signal from operating properly. The second item obviously is a “good problem to have” from the current perspective, where it’s hard to get a timely cab. The third is exactly the kind of opacity that modern information technology solves, or at least mitigates. It’s time to give price and supply deregulation another shot.

Comments

  1. David Lawson says

    Supply of cabs is the classic problem where regulation is very hard to accomplish successfully but an unregulated market also leads to clear failure.

    Seattle and New York both operate on a medallion system, and both have clear and frequent cab shortages. In both cities I would argue that the low limits on supply represent a case of regulatory capture. The taxi industry is very effective at lobbying because few other people bother to think about taxi-related regulatory minutiae, and it gets its way.

    Washington, DC has an unlimited supply. You can (almost) always find a cab when you need one, but this leads to other issues: clogging of central areas with taxis, occasionally affecting transit and general traffic; many marginal or short-term operators in the business, often with no particular incentive to provide quality service or even abide by safety regulations; and even harassment of people on the street who look to operators like potential passengers.

    I suppose the technocratic solution would be to monitor availability metrics and automatically issue more licenses when availability drops beyond a certain point. Of course, solutions like this are also easily gamed by owners plugged into the political process.

    • Martin H. Duke says

      David,

      I agree with everything you said. However, I’d characterize the “cabs clogging everything” argument as a classic case of the interests of car owners against non-car-owners. It’s true that transit suffers from congestion too, but I think the road capacity is going to be consumed in either case, with taxis displacing private cars in an unregulated scheme.

    • Zach Shaner says

      I suppose the technocratic solution would be to monitor availability metrics and automatically issue more licenses when availability drops beyond a certain point.

      Lyft already does this *in real-time*. It schedules a base number of driver hours, then allows hours to picked up ad hoc if there’s enough demand. If demand falls below a certain point, drivers who haven’t reserved those hours are automatically signed out. The era of cars roaming around looking for fares should be over; companies can regulate supply in real-time instead of via arbitrary market caps. Demand is asymmetric anyway, and companies like Lyft can nimbly respond to demand surges by opening up hours to more drivers, whereas a market cap would leave those customers unserved.

      Great post, Martin.

      • Andrew Smith says

        Zach’s point here is important because technology is exactly what makes these new services different from “classic” taxi cabs. Without mobile phones, these services couldn’t exist. That’s why they are different and coming now.

    • Brent says

      Cabs clogging traffic and hindering buses is not a sign of too many cabs. It is a sign of too little dedicated bus right-of-way.

      At any rate, it seems bizarre that Seattle doesn’t have an automatic annual increase in the number of cab licenses to match population growth. It seems even more bizarre that this is isn’t a county function.

      • David Lawson says

        Cabs clogging traffic and hindering buses is not a sign of too many cabs. It is a sign of too little dedicated bus right-of-way.

        In most cities, cabs are allowed to use dedicated bus right-of-way. In the rest, they use it anyway. Cabs blocking our zones was my #1 most frequent source of bus driving rage.

      • David Lawson says

        Yes, only because with a limited supply of cabs you’re not as likely to have huge tangles of cabs congesting all of the streets around major destinations (such as Union Station or the largest hotels) and blocking all traffic lanes, including bus lanes.

      • Mike Orr says

        So if clogging is a problem mainly limited to certain parts of downtown and the airport, and if insufficient taxis is a problem everywhere else, then the thing to do is not limit the total number of taxis, but to limit them in clog-prone areas. That could be done at the city level or by giving each company a ration of congestion slots.

        Also, if taxis and carsharing are going to a smartphone-dispatch paradigm, I hope there will still be some kind of “taxi stands” around the city for those without smartphones.

      • Brent says

        I suspect the airport cab monopoly contract is about the Port getting a good return on allowing businesses to use its (the public’s) property, with shorter wait lines being a useful side effect.

    • says

      What I find curious is this line of argument of “yeah things here suck, but we tried something else 35 years ago, and that sucked too, and I once was in this other place, and that wasn’t perfect either”, as if there was only one “something else” to consider.
      Broaden your horizon folks, keep looking for better options.

      I mean, I don’t really have much exposure to taxis in the US other than in Seattle and NYC, so I don’t want to jump to the conclusion that taxis suck all over the US, but maybe it’s time to look abroad for taxi systems that DO work well, rather than coming up with others that are flawed as an argument that it’s impossible to get it right.

      If you are curious, Hamburg and Berlin, Germany work awesome. cars are in good shape, regulations on operators probably onerous, yet one is right there when you need one, and drivers seem to be doing ok too, in terms of health care, retirement, pay etc. (Passing the knowledge test is a bitch though (hey maybe that’s it, keep the wage level high by limiting the workforce supply))

      But even other flawed systems in my view are preferable to what we have in Seattle today. I much prefer a ride right now, in an Indian TukTuk, which mysteriously has problems with the meter as soon as the tourist gets in, over no ride at all.

  2. Brent says

    The airport has been partially solved problem (ii) by a competitive bid process for who can pick up at the airport. That process limits the number of vendors without limiting the number of cabs, so hopefully that right-sizes the waiting fleet. But then, one can electronically hail a for-hire driver, and get picked up curbside, not realizing that might be illegal.

    Of course, as has been discussed on this blog, there is a carbon footprint and a hit to driver productivity and profitability involved when all the other cab companies drop off at the airport and then deadhead to other pick-ups, while the winning airport pick-up vendor has lots of cabs deadhead back to the airport.

    But the focus on cab trips to the airport is an antiquated metric. Back when the report was written, nearly everyone drove, parking was more limited at the airport, and so airport trips were a major portion of all cab trips. Now, we are moving into a different paradigm of cabs as part of the toolbox for avoiding owning a car altogether. Back then, the transit options to the airport were also much more limited. Now, I bet there are a lot more cab rides to train stations.

    The cab industry itself has fallen behind the times. We, as consumers, need to be able to hail a ride, whether by waiving down a cab on a busy downtown street, calling a cab company, or electronically contacting a ride provider, without getting a lecture on the differences between cabs and for-hire drivers. The regs are full of bizarre notions, like the idea that multiple drivers are sharing a cab, and that it would be aged to unsafe use within seven years, when in reality lots of cab drivers rent-to-own their own cab. Meanwhile, public buses rack up many more miles and many more years of service before they get retired. The seven-year double-standard was an eye-opener when I read it.

    When I hail a cab on the street, I don’t want the driver to tell me “Call my dispatcher. I can’t just pick up passengers who waive me down.” When I call what I think is a cab company, I don’t want to be told “You’ll have to hail us on the street. Sorry.” (This is a true story from when I was caught in a blizzard, Metro’s 194 had disappeared for two hours – but was really running upstairs and no announcement was made in the tunnel, and I couldn’t get anyone to pick me up.) I just don’t get why we separate cabs and for-hire driver companies.

    • Lack Thereof says

      When I hail a cab on the street, I don’t want the driver to tell me “Call my dispatcher. I can’t just pick up passengers who waive me down.” When I call what I think is a cab company, I don’t want to be told “You’ll have to hail us on the street. Sorry.”

      Part of the problem here is that our taxi licenses are kind of superlicenses. A taxi licensed car can act as both a for-hire (dispatched) car and a taxicab (street-hailed), where as a for-hire licensed car can only take dispatch calls. Because taxis do everything, we get in the habit of calling our favorite cab company when we need a ride. They come out, acting as a for-hire car.

      So then, when there’s an actual surge in demand, and the taxi companies stop taking dispatch calls entirely (happens every snowstorm), no one knows what to do. The taxi companies have all trained us to call them first, when we really should have been calling for-hire companies all along, keeping the limited supply of hailable taxicabs available for pedestrians to flag down.

      If we were to more thoroughly segment the market, NY style, where taxicabs can ONLY take hailed fares, and for-hire cars are noticably visually distinct from taxicabs, it would both break riders out of this habit, AND increase the supply of hailable cabs on the street.

      Alternately, we could combine the two licenses, but the taxi companies would raise holy hell about the added competition for street hails – they already complain for-hire cars are illegally picking up street hails (I’ve never seen it happen, but I can totally believe it). But as I argue below, it’s necessary to regulate the price of a hailed cab, and not necessary to regulate the price of a dispatched car. It stands to reason that if one car is allowed to operate in both the regulated hailed-cab market AND the freer dispatched-car market, they’d find one side to be more lucrative than the other, and serve the more lucrative market near-exclusively (i.e. passing up hailing pedestrians at peak time to grab “surge priced” dispatch fares). So it makes sense (to me) to keep the two markets served by separate cars, to prevent that conflict.

    • asdf says

      Artificially limiting the number of companies who can pick up at the airport doesn’t make much sense. The pick-up lanes at virtually every airport are full of private individuals who don’t have to go through any competitive bidding process. It is crazy to say that picking people up at the airport as a free service to a friend is ok, but as soon as you charge someone money for the privilege, you are breaking the law, unless you are one of a tiny handful of companies.

      If the problem is traffic congestion in the pick-up and drop-off lanes, the first solution is to enforce the “no-waiting rule”. Most of the congestion issues with commercial drivers comes not from the actual picking up of passengers, which is fast, but the idling and blocking the lane until the next paying customer shows up.

      If that is not sufficient, the next step is to starting tolling the pick-up and drop-off lanes. But, if there is a toll, it should apply to everybody, regardless of vehicle (except transit buses, of course) including private cars. In practice, it is usually private cars, not commercial vehicles that cause airport pick-up congestion.

  3. Lack Thereof says

    Price regulation for street-hailable taxicabs is very important. When you flag down a cab from the curb, you should be able to expect the standard, citywide rate, regardless of what company that cab is. No matter who drives by, when I get in a cab I have hailed, I know I’m going to pay $2.70/mile. This needs to be maintained, because you can’t trust that there will be any functional price signals at all in the opportunistic street-hail market.

    If you call a dispatcher or order a ride online, the situation changes. There’s no need for price regulation, because it’s a competitive market – you can call anyone you want at any time. Price signals are reliable (see “surge pricing”) You can shop around. You can have a “favorite” company.

    These two systems need to be regulated independently. Both are crucial components of an urban transportation system, but both have very different regulatory needs.

    • Brent says

      Got it, now. Thanks! ;)

      So, part of Lyft’s problem is that they are attempting to side-step the for-hire driver regs by calling themselves “ride share”, when really they are a for-hire driver service, possibly tricking their drivers into uninsured driving.

      • Lack Thereof says

        That’s the main problem. They’re using drivers and cars without for-hire licenses.
        Insurance isn’t an issue though, UberX and Lyft at least have specialized liability policies – the only thing that Uber’s insurance doesn’t cover is damage to the uberX driver’s vehicle.

        So the big question is, how do we get these guys properly licensed? It’s very easy to get a King County for-hire license, but the situation at the city level seems a bit murky.

    • Mike Orr says

      I thought Lyft/Sidecar/Uber cost significantly less than $2.70/mile. Otherwise, why would people use them? (Except for the reliability issue.)

      • Aleks says

        All of these services are a significant quality upgrade from regular cabs. Instead of having to hail one (a process that can take 10-15 minutes), or call one and wait (also takes a while), you just press a button on your phone. Payment happens automatically, and you won’t get an evil glare from the driver for trying to pay with a credit card. The tip is included, and the driver knows you can’t possibly stiff them, and so they treat you very well. The fact that UberX is cheaper than a regular cab is just icing on the cake.

      • Bellinghammer says

        Yeah, these services are cashless, there is no haggling, you can rate drivers and comment (and never see that driver again if you wish by rating them 3 stars or below), you can GPS track the car when it is en route to pick you up, etc etc. Everything that One Bus Away did for transit, Uber and Lyft are doing for taxi-like services: removing uncertainty, streamlining processes, and providing real-time, dynamic information. You should really try one of them out, then you’ll clearly see the difference.

      • Lack Thereof says

        It’s roughly the same pricing as a Taxi, but can vary slightly with the type of trip.
        For short trips, their “minimum fare” can make it more expensive than a taxi. The fact that gratuity is calculated into the rate makes it less expensive for longer trips. I have only used UberX, so I don’t know how Lyft compares.

        The taximeter “waiting/stopped in traffic” rate is the same $0.50/min for both UberX and a taxicab, but how the rate is applied is slightly different. In a metered taxi, the time rate only runs when the taxi is at a stop, and the mileage rate counts every last foot the taxi rolls. In an UberX, the changeover from mileage based to time-based happens at 11mph – an uberX creeping through thick traffic is counting minutes instead of miles.

        This is mostly due to the technological difference between wheelspeed based meters used in licensed Taxicabs, and the GPS based meters used by Uber.

        I thought Lyft/Sidecar/Uber cost significantly less than $2.70/mile. Otherwise, why would people use them? (Except for the reliability issue.)

        They have very good response times, they don’t ask for directions, they get your exact mapped location from your phone’s GPS location, and they don’t give you shit about paying with a card.

      • z7 says

        What counts as “giving you shit” about paying with a card? If it’s simply asking whether I have cash, that’s fine — small businesspeople do that all the time.

        If I simply don’t have cash, then I decline the request and give my card. The alternative is that the driver takes no payment, which has never happened.

      • Aleks says

        z7, I’ve had taxi drivers pretend that they don’t take cards, even when there’s a sign in the cab that says “we take cards”. I’ve also had driver who grumble and glare at me the entire time, and who chide me for not paying with cash even after they’ve started processing my card.

      • Lack Thereof says

        I’ve handed my card to the driver, and had him had it back to me with “Come on, don’t you have any cash?” And I say no, I don’t. And he’s like “you must have cash, just give me the cash”, and we go around like this 3 or 4 times before he finally runs my card.

        And all this after I asked “Do you take Visa?” when I got in the cab.

        I have never once handed my card to a cab driver and had him just run it. They complain so much about using cards, it makes you think they’re trying to avoid leaving a paper trail – same as when they ask you to estimate your fare and shut the meter off halfway there.

      • asdf says

        I’ve sometimes seen drivers offer me unofficial discounts for paying cash. For instance, if the amount of cash I have with me is a couple dollars short of the total bill, drivers will usually prefer to take the cash, rather than have the full amount charged to my credit card.

      • Anandakos says

        I think we all know why one gets the evil-eye for paying with a credit card: there’s no possibility of tax avoidance.

      • Cascadia Bryan says

        As a cab driver, I am shocked at the stories I hear about drivers not taking cards. (Well, I’ve met the other drivers, so I’m not shocked.) But with the advent of Square Reader and other ways to take cards instantly, I’d almost RATHER take the card over cash. The money ends up in my bank account the next day (or Monday on weekends) and I don’t have to keep all of that cash around.

        It doesn’t take much to add customer service and use technology to your benefit. Besides, that is how most people seem to pay for everything anymore.

      • Zach Shaner says

        Lyft just released their prices last night, so now it’s possible to compare all of them directly. Lyft is by far the cheapest unless you’re taking a <2 mile ride, in which taxis’ lack of a minimum charge could make it the cheapest depending on traffic.

  4. Mark Dublin says

    Good post, Martin. Having driven both cabs and buses, still would like to see cab drivers get decent wages, vacations, and benefits- and would like to see both transit and cab drivers finally get some serious authority in the running of their industries.

    For instance, how about cooperatives for both taxicab and transit service, either different co-ops for different services, or same cooperative operating both kinds of service? As both a steady passenger and a taxpayer, it would be worth it to me to buy out existing license-holders, especially the ones who don’t drive anything but desks and political lobbies- in return for some long-overdue industrial democracy.

    Be good to rewrite the Clifford Odets play so Harborview saves Lefty, who recovers from the gunshot to lead the revolution.

    Mark Dublin

  5. Brent says

    Does anyone know where for-hire drivers of non-internal-combustion-engine vehicles fall in the regulatory scheme? (e.g. pedicabs and stagecoaches)

    For that matter, where do the for-hire tour drivers fit in the regulatory scheme? Is the Ducks a for-hire driver service?

    • RossB says

      I doubt any of them fall under the regulatory scheme. I’m pretty sure limo drivers don’t, either. That is why you can get a limo (or a van) to the airport for cheaper (in many cases) than a cab.

  6. Bellinghammer says

    Just an anecdote for those wanting a sense of scale: the city proposes to cap TNC licenses at 100 per company, while raising cab licenses from 800 to 850. While Uber and Lyft don’t release their employment numbers, the Facebook group for Seattle Lyft drivers has 640 members. It’s likely that the number of Uber/Sidecar/Lyft drivers now exceed the number of cabs. I have no idea how many For-Hire Vehicles there are out there.

    • Mike Orr says

      So Lyft could split into Lyft I, Lyft II, Lyft III, etc. Or Lyft North Seattle, Lyft South Seattle, etc.

      • asdf says

        They could, but the proposed regulations require each TNC to cough up a $50,000 fee to the city. Because of this, such splitting would become very expensive. If prices were passed along to consumers, the price advantage of Lyft over a taxi would likely disappear (which is probably the idea).

  7. RossB says

    Based on the comments above (especially http://seattletransitblog.com/2013/12/23/a-different-take-on-the-ridesharing-rules/#comment-400772) I think it makes sense to:

    1) Split the licensing for taxis and for-hire.
    2) Give everyone who has an existing license one of each.
    3) Start issuing lots of cheap for-hire licenses.
    4) Compensate the existing drivers if necessary. This may not cost that much. The taxi license may be fairly valuable, since no one is adding more of these.
    5) Deregulate the for-hire system. Keep the taxi system the same.
    6) In the way, way, distant future, we might add some more taxi licenses. But generally speaking, there hasn’t been much demand for this, so I see no reason to do this.

    • Lack Thereof says

      There already are separate Taxi and For-Hire licenses. Hardly anyone bothers to get a for-hire license, though, since a Taxi license allows everything a for-hire license does, and more.

      I have yet to discover if Seattle has a cap on for-hire licenses, and if so, what it is. The only thing I can find on the city website is one sentence in the licensing requirements vaguely stating that the number of licenses is “limited”. Google is useless. I have quite literally NEVER seen a Seattle for-hire license plate on a vehicle, so I suspect that it’s capped at “virtually none”. For what it’s worth, King County has no cap, and I see plenty of KC for-hire plates on cars (Eastside For hire, mostly).

      If there is something in the for-hire licensing that’s making it hard for UberX, Lyft et al. to get for-hire vehicle licenses, that should be fixed.

      • RossB says

        My point is that we should stop issuing a license that works for both. You can buy both if you want to, but we should deregulate and issue a lot more “for-hire” only licenses. The taxi licenses (which are good for hailing a cab) should continue to be limited (and thus valuable) and continue to be heavily regulated. If I hail a cab, I don’t want to be gouged. If I call a cab company, I can ask how much it costs before I finish the call.

      • Cascadia Bryan says

        I have yet to discover if Seattle has a cap on for-hire licenses, and if so, what it is. The only thing I can find on the city website is one sentence in the licensing requirements vaguely stating that the number of licenses is “limited”. Google is useless. I have quite literally NEVER seen a Seattle for-hire license plate on a vehicle, so I suspect that it’s capped at “virtually none”. For what it’s worth, King County has no cap, and I see plenty of KC for-hire plates on cars (Eastside For hire, mostly).

        The Seattle and County “For-Hire” plates are actually stickers in the front window. The cab number of the car should reflect the number on the “medallion” window sticker. All of the “cabs” with 4-digit cab numbers are For-Hire’s. But you can’t tell whether they are city or county or both without looking hard at the windshield stickers.

  8. Andrew Smith says

    What’s so “unhappy” about that paper on deregulation? Here are the conclusions:

    1. A significant increase in new entry;
    2. A decline in operational efficiency and productivity;
    3. An increase in highway congestion, energy consumption and environmental
    Pollution;
    4. An increase in rates;
    5. A decline in driver income;
    6. A deterioration in service; and
    7. Little or no improvement in administrative costs. 34

    Which can be put as:
    1. More cabs.
    2. There is no mention of this in the paper.
    3. There is no mention of this in the paper. Presumably more cabs = more cars = more pollution, but it’s left to the reader with no data to back it up.
    4. This is not surprising given the deregulation period was one of the highest inflationary periods in US history. All prices were rising at a 10+% rate at the time. The fact that taxis went up with inflation is no surprise.
    5. More competition = less money for incubants.
    6. The service problems mentioned (unstable prices and long lines) are ones easy solved my new technologies.
    7. This is a fairly minor point, and it actually seems like a positive for deregulation.

    Anyway, I don’t want deregulation, but I want to take the alternative taxis out of the black/grey market, which actually means new regulations! Still, that paper is hardly satisfying.

  9. RDPence says

    One of the knocks on the new-tech services is that you need a smartphone to work them, you have to be a pre-registered member, and you can pay only with plastic. The poor and working poor, without plastic and/or without a smartphone, can’t use these services. Even visitors with plastic and smartphones are mostly out of luck.

    Does anyone have any ideas how these services could be made available to everyone? Or is it inevitable that they remain accessible only to a local elite?

    • Lack Thereof says

      It’s easier to make smartphones accessible to everyone. And we’re pretty much there. Have you seen how little a secondhand smartphone on an urban prepaid provider costs? Basically the same as a landline.

      For the time being, hailing a taxicab on the street remains the universal-access option.

      • z7 says

        Also, windows phone.

        Moreover, there are valid reasons to not have a smartphone and not a data plan: it saves money, ensures that you do not miss the sunset because you are reading your phone, allows you to better keep work at work, etc.

        How about an SMS option? I hear that dumbphones have GPS, and SMS has been used for many critical systems (e.g. money exchange).

      • RDPence says

        Yes, smartphones are becoming more widely available, but the credit card requirement is still a major barrier.

        Of course taxicabs are the “universal-access” model, but universality often exists only in theory. The only time I see a cab in my neighborhood is when he’s carrying a fare. They never just cruise around where they can be hailed or respond quickly to a dispatcher’s call.

        My point, my question is, can the new services be made accessible to everyone, at some point in the future? If so, how? I’m beginning to think the answer is No.

      • Lack Thereof says

        Pre-paid visa cards are everywhere, and most employers only offer 2 forms of payment: prepaid card or direct deposit.

        The plastic barrier isn’t as big of a barrier as you think.

      • RossB says

        I don’t have a pricey phone either, Brent, but I sometimes ask a friend for one. Plus, I assume that these systems work just fine for a PC. That is a less common, less convenient situation, but it still works. I could also imagine that there might be a voice recognition option or a real operator with a phone, with an additional (hopefully minor) charge. Over time, my guess is that most bartenders would be able to “call a cab” for a customer just as easily from the tablet behind the bar as they do with a phone.

      • Zach Shaner says

        Yeah I know of one medical clinic that uses a smartphone to request Lyfts for customers who need a ride but don’t have smartphones.

      • RDPence says

        If I’m living so close to the edge that I can’t get a regular Visa or Mastercard, I can only get a pre-paid card, I’m not likely to surrender that card info to an on-line taxi company — especially when I’d be vulnerable to random “surge” pricing surcharges.

        And can we please stop calling these companies “ridesharing.” There is no sharing go on; they provide a service and charge money for it. Period. Let’s stop abusing the language.

      • Bellinghammer says

        @Brent, I used to swear I’d never get a smartphone but now I can’t imagine my transportation life without one. I hardly ever use my laptop anymore, but I use my phone for OneBusAway (in Seattle), Transit (for all other cities), Amtrak, Car2Go, Zipcar, Uber, Lyft, WSDOT traffic maps, WSDOT ferry schedules, airline reservations/seat changes/digital boarding passes, tracking stats for my bike commutes, and so much more. Since my employer pays for my bus pass, I basically break even on the cost of my $100/month smartphone.

      • Aleks says

        And can we please stop calling these companies “ridesharing.” There is no sharing go on; they provide a service and charge money for it. Period. Let’s stop abusing the language.

        +1. People giving other people money for services isn’t “the sharing economy”, it’s “the economy”.

      • asdf says

        How about a simple web interface? There is no technical reason why someone who doesn’t have a smartphone shouldn’t be able to go to lyft.com and book a trip from there on their home computer. Yes, it wouldn’t work well for trips originating outside of home, but it’s a whole lot better than nothing.

        My understanding is that the reason why the web booking interface doesn’t exist is regulatory bullshit, to work around the caps on for-hire licenses.

      • Lack Thereof says

        Am I the only one here who doesn’t have a pricey phone?

        Not exactly pricey, anymore. I got a used entry-level model for $45 off of ebay (could have had one for less if I hadn’t insisted on a full keyboard – call me old fashioned), and ported my number to a cheap prepaid carrier with unlimited data. My first month on the prepaid with unlimited data was cheaper than my last month on the contract with a dumbphone and no data.

        Obviously I’m not streaming 1080p video with that $45 device, but it’ll run OBA just fine.

      • asdf says

        Voice menus don’t work very well when you have to answer a question that isn’t multiple choice, for example, where you would like to be picked up at. The result would be a frustrating experience of “I can’t understand you” and drivers showing up at the wrong address. Even SMS would be better than this because at least you can text an address and see what you are typing.

      • RDPence says

        Don’t get out much, do you? Talk to a few people working part-time minimum wage jobs, or on unemployment for more than six months. Then tell us how many of them have credit cards that they would use for these new-tech taxi services.

      • Lack Thereof says

        They have debit cards. In this day and age, there are only 2 ways minimum wage employers pay their employees:
        1) Direct Deposit (into a bank or CU that will always gives them a debit card)
        2) An ADP TotalPay™ prepaid Visa card (or similar)

        Even government benefits come on debit cards these days.

        Most of the people who don’t want to use cards are simply distrustful of the banking system in general. Maybe they had an account with Wells Fargo once, got reamed, and it soured them on the whole system. But, in the end, society is going cashless.

        There’s also a pretty big safety concern cab drivers tooling around with their whole shift’s take in cash. For-hire outfits totally have a legitimate reason to not accept cash.

      • asdf says

        The trick to getting into the banking system without money for a meaningful initial deposit is to go online. For instance, my bank offers a free debit card and requires no minimum deposit to open an account.

      • Anon says

        Society is going to all cash. Cashless is a delusion which will go away. Unfortunately, if the attempt is made to force people cashless, you will get unregulated, untaxed, black market cash rather than federal reserve notes…

    • Mike Orr says

      The poor and working poor can afford taxis? It’s $7 just from King Street Station to Capitol Hill.

      • Lack Thereof says

        Perhaps you have heard the management phrase “No show, no job”.

        Years ago I was in the situation where I was working rush shifts in the service industry for minimum wage. If I missed my bus, I could call a cab, and the $20 fare+tip was only a couple dollars more than I would make during the shift. That couple of dollars, though, was an excellent investment, because it meant I kept a good attendance record and, by extension, my job.

        The working poor can’t afford taxis on a daily basis. But once or twice a month it is an absolute necessity, because if you miss a low-frequency bus on the way to work, you are screwed.

  10. Urbanist [ad hom] says

    “’The concern is if you flood the market with too many cabs, no one will make a living.””

    The same is true for many trades: masseuse, photographer, doctor,cupcake makers. Should the gub’ment regulate those professions too?

    • Brent says

      I think the question you meant to ask is whether the government should put a cap on the number of people licensed to do those professions. But doctors, massage therapists, cupcake preppers, and professional photographers don’t take up the limited space on downtown streets, and then hog that space until someone joins them in the car. Well, I suppose there are very occasional exceptions.

      If we allowed 10,000 cab licenses, we would notice the difference in downtown traffic.

      • asdf says

        You would think at some point, once the downtown market becomes sufficiently saturated, that it would be more profitable to branch out and move to another neighborhood of the city with less competition. The question is what this level is and how much of the street space downtown would be taken up by drivers waiting for fares before this happens. If drivers are willing to wait 20-30 minutes for a fare downtown before branching outward, the traffic impacts would start to get problematic.

        Of course, the real problem, though, is a matter of cars, not taxi drivers. For instance, someone who drives downtown to pick up a friend and hogs the street waiting for that person to walk out of a building and hop in, is really no different than a taxi driver in terms of traffic impacts, but somehow, the former is treated as a much bigger problem than the latter. This is a problem that could easily be solved via congestion pricing.

    • Lack Thereof says

      Currently? No. Things like the Metro Vanpool program are what were in mind when the rideshare regs were written.

      Now, the current crop of “rideshare” operators privately apply a more stringent set of rules upon their drivers, but they do so voluntarily, not because the law says they have to.

  11. says

    The limit on the licenses are necessary for many reasons. For one, you can’t compare it to the traditional business that leases or owns a building. It’s more like a street vendor, a food truck etc. At some point, the urban area becomes over-run, and beyond becoming a hassle, the revenue declines, the quality declines. As it is now, on any given weeknight, including rideshares, there is not a whole lot of business. These corporations want free will to add thousands of unregulated vehicles to our already crowded streets, and crowded industry. The city’s recent study proved, shortage is only during peak which accounts for a very small percentage of a drivers shift. This can be easily remedied by the amount of vehicles already licensed. Another thing a lot of readers here are missing, these are simply [epithet]. Sure, some prefer the quality, but they’re illegal. There are avenues to go down to set up shop. Plain and simple. Flywheel is one app that is doing an excellent job of working within the infrastructure to rejuvenate our LOCAL infrastructure. To call these multi million dollar corporations who absolutely want to crush local innovation, “underdogs” is a little insane in my opinion. The logical thing to do here is support local innovation, not corporate bullying.

  12. Cascadia Bryan says

    As a taxicab driver, I make a perfectly good living working (generally) at the edges of the city and into the suburbs. There are opportunities all over town. Yes, many of my fellow drivers are Downtown, and I’m not sure we want to start regulating where drivers can work. (Because, well, while I generally work outside Downtown, I’m not going to turn down business there if I am there anyway and get a call or find a flag.)

    I may be in the minority of drivers, but from the public policy standpoint, we need more cabs (or for-hires or ride shares or something) in the city. Just ask most of the passengers.

    One problem is that demand is not there all the time. A taxi driver/cab owner must keep the cab moving all the time to make a profit. That means not enough cabs Friday night but too many early Monday morning. To a certain extent, the Lyft-type model helps us a lot in adding supply only at the times that it is needed. But to do that, it is not necessarily productive to do so in a dedicated car. I believe that these part-time vehicles should be properly inspected and insured, and driven by qualified drivers. But there must be some way to offer a service that doesn’t require a dedicated vehicle painted yellow or orange or green.

    The main issue as I see it: All of these services CAN eventually operate in harmony. But I need to worry about the individual who I lease a cab from each week. That person has a huge investment in a number of cabs & medallions. I cannot overlook that some way must be offered to get those owner/drivers out of their current financial situation. To get ourselves a 21st Century transportation in Seattle, we MUST find a way to help those 20th Century owners some resolution on their investments. I think that if that issue can be solved, a lot of the pushback from cabs toward new services will go away.

    Disclaimer: I have driven about 5 shifts using my own car with Lyft, mostly to satisfy my curiosity. For the foreseeable future, I won’t be quitting my day job, as they say. I service a wider range of customers in the taxicab than Lyft ever will. I like many things about cab driving, and it has many advantages. But the taxi companies could learn a lot from Lyft.

    If typical taxi drivers had the same customer service attitude as Lyft drivers, then there wouldn’t be a credible threat from rideshares. I have always tried to use the techniques that Lyft teaches, as do some others. But as I said before, I have met my fellow drivers.

    The most awesome difference is dispatch. It tells me a lot when I see that my own smartphone can be as useful (or more so) than the dispatch computer in my taxi. Yes, some of this is because the number of people Lyft serves id more limited than taxis. But it seems that in this day and age the cab companies are not adapting some of the components of the rideshare’s dispatch system into their own operations. The number one complaint by my Lyft passengers about taxicabs is the unreliability of the taxicab dispatch system. They feel that it does not service them properly.

    Lyft will never replace the taxicab. And I hope (and I know) that my taxicab will still be there in the future. But there is certainly enough room for both services to do what they are each good at.

  13. John Bailo says

    There is a fourth option.

    Subsidize the taxi cabs and integrate them with the other transit modalities of bus and rail.

    This was my suggestion back in 1993.

    We could utilize cab (and ride sharing services) and subsidize them — the way we do transit lines. We’re already spending enough per person on some transit (Sounder North) that if you took the subsidy and applied it to a cab it would cover the equivalent ride for a cab of 3 or 4 people!

    And rather than a choice of near empty bus routes or neighborhoods with no service, you’d have on-demand taxi services, but at affordable transit pricing.

  14. asdf says

    Danger: if the service were too convenient, and too many people used it, how do you propose to keep the costs of the subsidy out of hand? This is not a problem with buses and trains – if hoards of new people started riding North Sounder, the cost per boarding would go down, but the total cost would not go up. With cabs, add more riders and the cost per boarding would remain the same, and the total cost would increase uncontrollably.

  15. ClaimsAdjuster says

    Mr Duke’s summary of the unhappy results of taxi deregulation was a complete distortion, particularly since the report actually provided one:

    “One study examined more than 20 U.S. cities that deregulated taxicab entry or rates or both prior to 1983 and summarized the results as follows:
    1. A significant increase in new entry;
    2. A decline in operational efficiency and productivity;
    3. An increase in highway congestion, energy consumption and environmental
    Pollution;
    4. An increase in rates;
    5. A decline in driver income;
    6. A deterioration in service; and
    7. Little or no improvement in administrative costs. ”

    The most important one which doesn’t affect software engineers was #5: “a decline in driver income. “

    • Martin H. Duke says

      Nice of you to insinuate that a software engineer can’t care about other people while you comment in anonymity. No doubt you have the best interests of the little people at heart.

      In any case, let’s apply your logic to other industries. If we limit the number of restaurants, that will increase tips for remaining wait staff — never mind those who will have to be laid off for the greater good.

      Meanwhile, in addition to reduced income, driver costs decline because they don’t have to rent a license to operate a cab.

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