New urban movers shake up Seattle transit

GUEST OPINION: Buses, light rail, taxis, town cars - stalwarts in the transportation mix. But they don't meet all our environmentally-conscious, tech-savvy, urban transit needs.
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Car2Go is one other transit option.

GUEST OPINION: Buses, light rail, taxis, town cars - stalwarts in the transportation mix. But they don't meet all our environmentally-conscious, tech-savvy, urban transit needs.

We need urban transportation solutions for Seattle’s 630,000 residents. For 20 years we’ve fought for urban density. With the arrival of innovative mobile-based ride-share apps, we now have new and very timely choices about how to move around our dense city.

People got out of their cars during the recession, and they’re not climbing back in. Forty percent of those who work in Seattle commute, yet King County Metro is facing a 17 percent cut in its bus service this coming year. Light rail arrived late and is not an option for everyone. We need more transit, and more transportation options that come with the amenities an automobile can provide.

We bus, walk or bike to work, but then we want to visit friends in a neighborhood across town at night. Maybe our son or daughter is a night school student in the city and a bus ride to Northgate doesn’t feel safe. An emergency trip to the doctor or a family member won’t always wait on transit.

Taxis, town cars, buses and light rail have staying power in any urban transportation system. But they aren’t sufficient for our 21st century, environmentally-conscious, technologically savvy urban community. For years, we’ve sought to incentivize ride-share and car-pooling for their environmental benefits, but they haven’t taken hold in a meaningful way. In part, this is because those options still require the same kind of pre-planning and scheduling that transit does. But with mobile apps, we have another chance.

Transportation entrepreneurs have arrived in post-recession Seattle. Lyft, Sidecar, UberX, Car2Go aren’t looking to become the new monopoly or replace taxis. They’ve captured a market niche because they meet the needs of customers who didn’t feel served by those other options. And they employ different business models.

Taxis, limos and Uber are “for-hire” transit modes. They offer fixed fares and typically require advance scheduling. They employ commercially-licensed drivers.

In contrast, Car2Go has upended the conventional car rental model. Lyft is a “ride-share” platform accessible by a mobile app that matches pre-screened drivers and riders in real time. The rider defines the price she’s willing to pay after arriving at her destination. Lyft drivers are self-employed, drive their own cars and are free to set their own hours. A driver may be a single mom earning enough to help her adult daughter pay for beauty school, or a stay-at-home dad whose wife is the primary earner.

Most Lyft drivers begin as riders, and they say they've formed a new community. Strict safety requirements promise to set a new standard for transportation and are supported by the app: Drivers and riders see pictures of each other so they can verify who they’re sharing a ride with. They also rate their experience for the benefit of the next driver and rider.

We want to encourage this kind of innovation and connection, not stifle it. Seattle city government is rethinking the rules of the road. Ideas on the table include pulling new transportation platforms or networks into the regulatory structure that presently governs taxis, for-hires and limos. But new commercial licensing requirements — assessing high fees on individual drivers, for example — would risk crushing the ride-share model that relies on a network of part-time or even casual drivers and riders. The driver-rider network needs to reach critical mass if we are to realize the full environmental benefits of ride-share — less congestion and less pollution — as fewer people drive or purchase single-occupancy vehicles.

The Federal Trade Commission has cautioned that regulations should focus only on promoting public safety and not on creating unreasonable barriers to entry or protecting incumbents.

There is no going back to “normal.” We have changed the way we live and work. Regardless of our age, income, heritage or gender, we want transportation solutions that let us enjoy our city life. Innovation is the way forward.


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