End the city’s taxi monopoly and let Uber roll
While Seattle should continue to regulate ride services for the public welfare, it should get out of the business of protecting the taxi monopoly, columnist Sharon Pian Chan writes.
Times editorial columnist
In summer protests worthy of a Manhattan rush hour, Seattle taxi drivers have taken to parking outside City Hall and honking their horns. Their beef? Not a traffic disrupter, but a technology one: the arrival of competing car services powered by smartphone apps UberX, Sidecar and Lyft.
This city is on fire for cars for hire. And it has created a Seattle identity crisis.
Our diversity-loving self wants to support the cabdrivers, predominantly first-generation East African and South Asian immigrants. In some cases, they paid more than $100,000 to buy one of 850 taxi licenses the city permits.
But our greenie self wants fewer people driving cars alone, and UberX’s hybrids for hire reduce carbon emissions.
Our urban-planning self wants taller, denser neighborhoods near downtown, where office towers now sprout from former U-Park lots, but people won’t move in unless there are reliable driving alternatives.
And our inner geek, our start-up-loving self, tips its hat to the apps created by Uber, Sidecar and Lyft. A Yellow Cab phone dispatcher tells me to wait on the sidewalk for 15 minutes, and on occasion the car never shows up. The Uber app tells me who is coming and when the car will arrive, down to the minute. Because the app stores my credit card info, I don’t have to deal with some taxi drivers who act like they’re doing me a giant favor by taking plastic.
Uber is a venture-funded tech company based in San Francisco, but that doesn’t make it the enemy of immigrants. In the dozens of times I’ve used UberX, I’ve never been picked up by anyone named Tad or Trevor. My drivers answer to names like Ahmed, Manjeet and Raj.
Tesfaye Haileselassie drives a car for Uber’s town-car service called UberBLACK. His father, who was a nurse in Ethiopia, became a taxi driver after the family immigrated to the U.S. Tesfaye used to work for a parking lot operator, then got laid off two years ago. He started driving for Uber, and saved money to open up a restaurant, Abay Ethiopian Cuisine in Capitol Hill, this year.
While some taxi drivers are trying to kick UberX out of the city, others are signing up to drive for it. On Saturday, a South Asian immigrant driver picked me up in an UberX. On weekdays he works as a taxi driver hauling people to and from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, but when he’s not scheduled to work the airport route, he drives for Uber.
Seattle should lift its cap on the number of taxi licenses and extend oversight to the new car services to protect the public. Just like the county inspects restaurants for food safety, Seattle government should check that the brakes work, drivers’ backgrounds are researched and that insurance covers accidents. The city should ensure that drivers do not refuse fares to and from poor neighborhoods or discriminate against passengers.
But Seattle has no business maintaining a monopoly for the taxi industry. The county does not limit the number of restaurants that can open. Washington does not cap how many doctors can work in the state. The taxi monopoly represents the type of autocratic, meritocracy-killing regimes many immigrants fled when they moved to the U.S.
It’s also illegal. In April, a Milwaukee Circuit Court judge ruled its taxi monopoly was illegal and ordered the market opened, according to the Arlington, Va., nonprofit Institute for Justice, which filed the lawsuit against the city of Milwaukee. In Minneapolis, a U.S. District Court judge also ruled its taxi cap illegal.
A Seattle City Council committee is currently studying demand for car services. If the results bolster the case to lift the license cap, great. But it’s pointless for the city to dictate the number of licenses. A free market would do the most efficient job of balancing supply and demand. Lift the cap.
Give taxi licenses to the 200 drivers who have for-hire licenses, a purgatorial category of cars that can be hired by phone but are forbidden to pick up people hailing cabs on the street. Use licenses to regulate UberX for safety and insurance as well.
Cars represent economic and personal freedom. When I gave up my car four years ago, I had a female identity crisis. Even though I walk to work, I still had to depend on my husband to drive me around.
What if we had an argument and I wanted to go stay with a friend? Would I walk to the bus stop? Call a taxi and wait 15 minutes?
I know what I would do now. I will fire up my app, and Ahmed will help me make my escape.