As I understand political theory, liberals generally favor more governmental regulation, while conservatives do not. But this is being turned on its head in ultra-liberal Seattle, a city that voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama in 2012 and still seems to back him. The ultra-liberal masses are rising up against a City Council move to impose rules and requirements on free-wheeling ridesharing services like Lyft (known for the fuzzy pink mustaches affixed to vehicle grills) and Sidecar.
The high and mighty guiding principle here seems to be the pocketbook. The unregulated rideshare services–essentially, drivers using their personal vehicles to ferry passengers who call for service using cell-phone apps–are cheaper than traditional taxis.
So much for political theory.
After a fair amount of debate, the City Council earlier this year passed an ordinance to put a limit on how many rideshare drivers could be on the streets at any one time, and also to mandate safety and insurance rules. The rideshare companies promptly bankrolled an effort to force a public vote on the ordinance. They hired an out-of-state petition firm that in turn flew in veteran, highly skilled signature-gathering supervisors from far-flung, politically attuned places like New Jersey.
Voila! Within a couple of weeks, the rideshare companies collected signatures of one-sixth of all voting-age Seattleities, double what was needed. The filing of their petitions put a hold on the ordinance pending a public vote possibly to be held in November. Right now, I have little doubt that voters would put a permanent KO on the new ordinance.
Except for one small thing. The rideshare services remain illegal under existing, longstanding Seattle law that requires a license to ferry passengers for pay. Right now the city government isn’t enforcing the ban, much to the displeasure of traditional cab companies, which are losing business left and right to the cheaper competition.
So there’s the possibility that another ordinance–maybe one without a rideshare driver limit but containing the safety and insurance rules–will be drafted and also presented to voters. Seattle’s new mayor, the liberal consensus builder Ed Murray, has signaled he’s angling for something like that.
In public comments, some City Council members said they simply were trying to create a level playing field between the cab companies and the rideshare companies, which operate with less overhead and costs for stuff like insurance and new equipment. I find that official reasoning preposterous, coming as it does in the very town where Amazon.com rose to power over brick-and-mortar stores by ducking taxation of most of its online sales to create a most unlevel playing field.
In my experience, fairness rarely has been a factor in regulation of the taxicab industry. Nationwide, it operated essentially as a series of local monopolies–regulated, but not really. In Seattle the number of taxicab licenses is limited, and no new ones have been issued in decades.
The last thing cab companies wanted all these years was a level playing field. So it certainly is rich to hear them demand it now.
Moreover, in my mind, there’s little question the taxi business long has been one of America’s worst-run industries. “Regulation at its worst,” Forbes declared in an 1988 article by my longtime colleague, Janet Novack, about the taxicab business. But I also speak from personal experience. Four decades before becoming New To Seattle, I was a taxicab driver in the Philadelphia area. What did I witness? Bad service, poorly maintained equipment, rumors of illicit payoffs, and incompetent management.
Here in Seattle, the biggest taxi company is Yellow Cab of Seattle, whose vehicles are dispatched by an outfit called Puget Sound Dispatch. As I wrote here two years ago, its drivers often refused to honor a posted 10% discount for American Automobile Association members like me. Once trying to leave Sea-Tac Airport, I voted with my feet and took a cheaper shared van service.
This seems to be what is happening on a grander scale around Seattle. I doubt average Seattle passengers care much about the regulatory issues that make a taxi more expensive than a rideshare. They just want the cheapest fare they can get. In Seattle, a conservative is a liberal who has paid too much for a cab ride.