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Seattle’s ride-sharing debate reaches its boiling point

The taxis are literally circling City Hall, but the council is punting once again on new rules for ride-sharing.
Can't we share? Cabbies circled Seattle City Hall earlier this year to protest ridesharing.

Can't we share? Cabbies circled Seattle City Hall earlier this year to protest ridesharing. Photo: Western Washington Taxi Cab Operators Association


Taxi cabs circled City Hall last Friday, blocking streets and honking their horns to protest a spreading lawlessness in Seattle.

In the city, taxis alone are permitted to pick up people hailing rides. However, the city admits enforcement of their illegal competition is almost non-existent, whether it be for-hire drivers, private cars, or especially upstart ride-share companies. Taxis claim they’re the only ones following the rules, and it’s killing their business. Their competition says taxis are losing because other options offer better service.

The protest was timed ahead of a City Council committee meeting, originally scheduled for tomorrow, where debate on the issue was to enter its next phase. The result of a commissioned 'demand study' was scheduled for presentation, which the council says will help shape new commercial vehicle regulations for the city.

The taxi industry is itching for the debate. However, they’ll have to wait a while longer, as Council President Sally Clark says the presentation will now be delayed until September. The study’s researchers need more time to compile their findings, she said.

As recently as two months ago, July 31st was named as the date new regulations would be proposed for Seattle’s commercial vehicles. Clark now says it’ll be later this year, but wouldn’t firm up a specific timeframe. “This is one of the most complicated issues I’ve worked on,” said Clark. “No one’s happy with the current situation.”

But while pointing out flaws in the system is easy, solutions are harder to come by. “This issue has so many facets,” Clark said. “It’s got consumer protection elements. It has enforcement elements, and race and social justice elements….We have to get this new world right, because we can’t go back to the old ways.”

The Disruptors

These issues have been brewing in Seattle for years, but are only now reaching a boiling point. That’s largely due to new ride-sharing upstarts in the market. Lyft, UberX and Sidecar have all started operations in Seattle over the last year. In other markets they’ve adopted, such as San Francisco, their commercial aggressiveness has forced the formation of new regulations, if only to stem the anarchy.

Clark said that will soon be the case in Seattle as well. While Seattle hasn’t issued ride-share companies a cease-and-desist order like California (which they ignored), she said it was clear the status quo was due for a change.

These new ride-share services are often lumped together, having one primary similarity: the ability to hail drivers from smartphone apps, on which drivers are rated, displayed on a map and easily summoned based on their proximity. They also undercut taxi prices, offering a cheaper service.

Among the three services, only UberX presents itself as offering professional, for-hire rides. An UberX driver we spoke with identified himself as a longtime veteran of the for-hire industry. Over a hundred UberX drivers operate in the city, according to Uber Seattle manager Brooke Steger, and most have experience in the for-hire and limo industries. However, only about half are commercially insured.

“We offer a level of professional service unmatched by our competitors,” said Steger. “Taxis are not the best system for drivers…In our system, drivers can set their own hours and run their own businesses.”

Lyft and Sidecar are more coy about their intentions. Known for the pink moustaches strapped on their cars, Lyft drivers greet you with a fist bump. Lyft’s claim that drivers are “your friend with a car”, sharing the extra space in their vehicle, is undermined by the fact that they’re paid $18 an hour or more. Sidecar takes a different tact, with a spokeswoman telling us “we’re doing something even more disruptive [than competing with taxis]. We're working to replace the need for car ownership.”

The rideshares are clearly service businesses, and speaking with both Lyft and Sidecar drivers, they readily admit they drive to make money, not to “share” their cars. But only Uber is upfront about why they’re here: because no one is stopping them.  


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Aug 7, 4:29 p.m. Inappropriate

I'd be more sympathetic to the whining of cabbies if they were actually professional drivers. Too many of them have no notion of Seattle geography, let alone hospitality. They see non-English speakers as easy marks, tourists as suckers. While most are honest, many are a disgrace to Seattle.

Posted Wed, Aug 7, 4:31 p.m. Inappropriate

A ride from a stranger is a ride from a stranger is a ride from a stranger. Regulate and license the same. We need more of them and they all should be accessible for hire by smartphone.

I am SICK and TIRED of our electeds buying into new 'hip' terminology for the same thing. (a la Microhousing which is NOTHING new) New conditions should be applied to the existing to improve and fix what is problematic. Not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Because the baby won't get thrown out. Instead we are just mired in more confusion. The problem has been lack of technology and lack of availability.

When I land at National Airport -- there is a cab. When I am out on the street of DC at any hour, there is a cab available.

Every driver of every cab ride, and every Shuttle ride, I have had in Seattle has been completely professional. But, maybe I don't have the anti-foreigner bias of some. Waiting for the ride has been the problem.

Nuff said.

Posted Sat, Aug 10, 1:05 p.m. Inappropriate

I agree about the rides from strangers. Sidecar, Lyft, etc. are perfect vehicles for predators of all kinds. And the insurance angle is scary. As far as the service problems with cabs, Seattle needs a stronger taxi agency to crack down on the problems mentioned in these comments.

NotFan

Posted Wed, Aug 7, 10:36 p.m. Inappropriate

The cab drivers in Seattle are simply terrible. I can't think of a positive experience that I've ever had in a cab. The cab driver is normally rude to me because he has to waste his time getting directions from me instead of chatting with the person he's speaking to on his cell. The airport taxis are the worst, they get visibly angry if you aren't going downtown.

When Stita had the airport contract, I had to threaten to report one of them just to get a ride home. My wife and I had just came back from Mexico and stood at the taxi stand (in our vacation clothes), the taxis parked there would not move...but when a person that was obviously here on business walked up, they would race up, grab him/her and leave us there. This happened about six times before I had to threaten to report the next driver. When he found out we were going to West Seattle, he slammed down his clipboard and mumbled something under his breath. We will never step foot in a Stita cab again...ever.

Finally, my sister flew in from the mid-west to visit several years ago. We had her meet us in downtown Burien (basically walking distance from the airport)..the charge? $35. It costs us $24 to go to our house in Arbor Heights...a far cry from downtown Burien.

Now, when we travel (several times per year), we call a town car or use one of the ride share services. Yes, sometimes we pay more, but we don't have to deal with rude drivers that feel they shouldn't have to work to make their money. I will support anyone but the taxi drivers in this city.

Posted Thu, Aug 8, 10:50 a.m. Inappropriate

I don't think the complaint about taxis at the airport are Seattle-specific: I've had the exact same experience in every city I've flown into.

Taxi drivers at LAX grumble when you want a ride to nearby Santa Monica or Manhattan Beach instead of downtown or the valley; in Atlanta they grumble if you want to go to nearby Forest Park; basically, any airport taxi driver is going to be upset if they wait in line at the taxi stand and end up catching a 'short fare' - as seen in major taxi protests in Melbourne, Australia last May (http://www.news.com.au/breaking-news/police-ready-for-taxi-protests-at-melbourne-airport/story-e6frfkp9-1226636814423)

I do think there are legitimate problems within the city, though. I've had very unreliable service trying to call a taxi or book online, but much better response for Uber.

And don't bother trying to get a ride from anyone in this city at a 'peak demand' moment like after the July 4 fireworks or New Years Eve. The 'free market' breaks down and supply doesn't even come close to meeting demand. I actually tried to reserve a taxi ahead of time last New Years and the dispatcher hung up on me.

Posted Thu, Aug 8, 10:56 a.m. Inappropriate

This is an instance in which the council should focus on promoting innovation. Those who are uncomfortable with the ride sharing model can continue to use the traditional taxi system and enjoy the improved service and convenience that Gearhart referred to, but I would not admit them the right to deny ridesharing services to others.

Posted Thu, Aug 8, 11:07 a.m. Inappropriate

It's time for the taxi companies to join the online world. If they all subscribed to an app where riders could reserve a cab for a specific time (even right away), everything would be more efficient. When I need a cab, I'm usually in an area where cabs are not "right out front", so I call. It would be much better to book online with a confirmation from a cabbie who is nearby and wants my business. And, it would be much more efficient to have all the cab companies on that same app, competing for my business. They don't have to compete in fare charges, just promptness and willingness to commit to the job.

If none will commit, and the ride is within permitted areas, then the cab companies all should face some kind of penalty.

Posted Thu, Aug 8, 1:38 p.m. Inappropriate

I own my own car. I highly recommend it. I don't have to worry about any of this stuff.

Lincoln

Posted Thu, Aug 8, 1:57 p.m. Inappropriate

We taxi when going to events to avoid the delays, costs and hassles for parking. Some evening events we taxi during winter, to also avoid same.

Posted Fri, Aug 9, 7:13 a.m. Inappropriate

"We taxi when going to events to avoid the delays, costs and hassles for parking"

According to many posters here, getting a taxi involves a lot of "delays, costs and hassles." Does a taxi both ways really cost less than parking? How quickly can you get into a taxi after an event lets out, and many people are wanting taxis at the same time? Taxis don't get caught up in traffic around events?

Lincoln

Posted Sat, Aug 10, 5:19 p.m. Inappropriate

The taxis get us to the events faster, and generally pretty close to the entrance. Afterwards, traffic snarls can definitely include taxis, but we go get a bite to eat, and wait, then call for a taxi to head back to where we did park. Usually, we've driven to a spot near the event, but not in parking hell, and call for a cab to meet us. Rarely do we flag cabs, except at airports or large cities, or when where there will be plenty of cabs.

Posted Fri, Aug 9, 7:20 a.m. Inappropriate

If taxi drivers were a little more attentive to the laws regarding the use of cell phones while driving I might have a little more sympathy for them complaining about lax enforcement of other laws.

talisker

Posted Sat, Aug 10, 5:20 p.m. Inappropriate

Ditto for Manhattan taxis.

Posted Wed, Dec 18, 4:15 p.m. Inappropriate

Hailo is a phone app that lets you hail a cab. It's just not in Seattle. The company is based in NYC but also offers service in other U.S. cities, Boston, Chicago, Washington DC, Atlanta, as well as Toronto and Montréal in Canada.

https://www.hailocab.com/nyc#

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