This summer's stealth issue, a critical subject that's been flying under the local radar, is the greening of Seattle's taxis and a much-needed overhaul of the local taxicab industry. Proposed legislation now before the Seattle City Council has not received a lot of press. But for all its obscurity, the taxicab overhaul matters a great deal for the public, for the environment, for those who drive the cabs, and for those license holders who have invested in the industry. The issue, vital to the livelihoods of several hundred owners and several thousand drivers, has generated plenty of controversy at City Hall.
- Requiring new cabs to go green and meet higher per gallon mileage standards by 2013.
- Allowing for more licenses — up to 35 per year — with provisions that the new licensees must drive those cabs at least 30 hours a week, 40 weeks a year, for five years before licenses can be sold.
- Issuing of "lease caps" that set maximum lease rates and thus protect drivers from being forced to pay for expenses that, fairness dictates, should be covered by taxicab license owners, rather than by drivers who frequently average only $10-$12 an hour.
- Increasing annual city license fees, which have not been raised for a decade, to cover the cost of regulating the industry.
- Raising drop and per-mile rates to capture increasing fuel costs in a way that is fairer to customers.
- Working with the Port of Seattle to resolve the issue of "deadheading" between the city and Sea-Tac Airport, so that trips to the airport would be able to pick up passengers there, rather than returning empty.
The cab business in Seattle is a mostly male industry that attracts new immigrants and refugees to its ranks. It is estimated that 89 percent of Seattle drivers were born outside the U.S.; many licensees also are relative newcomers. There are 643 licensed Seattle cabs, adding up to a $70 million a year industry. But despite a city office devoted to taxi regulation, not a lot of data have been collected. One of the goals of the new legislation is to capture solid information and to report back to the Seattle City Council about industry conditions.
Taxis are a regulated monopoly, so oversight is important. No industry can regulate itself fairly; self-regulation inevitably errs on the side of self interest. Too often, low-income cab drivers have been subjected to high lease rates and terms by taxicab owners. While information on the balance between owners and drivers is mostly anecdotal, the stories that council members have heard during hearings are compelling. It has taken considerable courage for taxi drivers to stand up publicly and tell their stories, perhaps risking their careers.
The legislation now before the council, which likely will be voted on next month, would provide for the city's taxicab regulators to hold public hearings and, relying on cost-of-living figures, set maximum lease rates for cabs. Seattle would not be the first city to use lease caps to ensure excessive costs are not passed along to drivers. Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Minneapolis, and San Francisco are among the cities that use them.
Our goals should be to reduce our carbon footprint and better serve the public and the taxi industry. That road to a greener, more customer-friendly industry is wide open, and the city ought to take decisive action, soon.