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.”
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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