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Originally published February 12, 2014 at 5:01 PM | Page modified February 13, 2014 at 9:21 AM

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Guest: Looking out for immigrant drivers in new taxi, Uber, Lyft laws

It is critical for the City Council to keep a sharp eye on equity and fairness in creating new laws for taxis and app-based ride services like uberX and Lyft, write guest columnists Mike O’Brien and Rich Stolz.

Special to The Times

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AS Seattle City Council considers legislation to legalize app-based ride services like uberX and Lyft, much of the conversation has focused on ensuring public safety and consumer choice. These issues are essential and new technology provides new opportunities to find and hail vehicles easily.

However, it is also critical for the City Council to keep a sharp eye on equity and fairness. As Seattle tackles issues of income inequality and a growing lack of diversity because of decreasing affordability, we must consider the economic importance of the existing taxi industry to low-wage workers, including Seattle’s immigrant and refugee communities.

Some believe that innovation in the taxi industry can only come from these new services, which use mobile apps to locate and dispatch drivers to people looking for rides. This is untrue.

A couple of years ago, a company run by East African immigrants, Olympic For Hire, approached the city’s taxi regulators to ask whether it could use a new dispatch app, similar to those we see today. Because of outdated city regulations, the company was told to stop. Instead of breaking the law, Olympic For Hire let go of the idea.

Last year, multimillion-dollar corporations unleashed their services without seeking permission, openly flouting the law. While current regulations do need updating, small local companies like Olympic should not be penalized for playing by the rules.

Those who use taxis or for-hire vehicles know that the people who make this industry possible are mostly African and South Asian immigrants and refugees. Some are new to Seattle while others have been here for decades. Most speak multiple languages and many have advanced degrees.

Yet, in our great city of prosperity, there are very few career opportunities available to them. While many immigrant drivers now also work for Uber, the taxi industry provides a major source of income for immigrant communities, allowing them to provide for their families and, in turn, support the ethnic grocery stores and restaurants in their communities that provide jobs and income to other families.

Whether fleeing religious or political persecution, or as climate refugees whose land was turned to desert, many spent years in refugee camps before getting the opportunity to relocate to America. Arriving in the U.S. with few financial resources and a new language to learn, they have survived and created opportunities where few exist. They have proved that they will find a way to be successful when given a fair chance.

That is why we support a council proposal legalizing app-based ride services while ensuring economic opportunity for current and future drivers of taxis, for-hires and app-based companies.

The proposal adopts the technological innovations many want by increasing the number of legal vehicles carrying passengers for money on the road by nearly 50 percent, including 300 new app-based licenses and 150 new taxi licenses. Doing so ensures opportunities for those drivers who already invested in their taxis and licenses and have played by the rules.

The proposal ensures public safety by requiring uniform safety and liability standards, such as vehicle safety inspections, driver training requirements and liability insurance requirements. It would also create a two-year pilot to study the impact on the industry and customer experiences during this major transition.

This proposal is about making sure that the lure of technology doesn’t allow us to forget our values, values that make Seattle great. It’s about combining opportunity, innovation and fairness.

We cannot predict how the market will evolve. Will multimillion-dollar companies dominate the market or will local entrepreneurs design innovative new ways to meet consumers’ needs, including new products that we cannot even anticipate today?

This proposal is fair and reasonable, with enough flexibility to foster innovation and to preserve opportunities for existing drivers, while keeping residents and visitors to our city safe. In the end, that would ensure that customers, drivers and businesses are all better off and that Seattle stays a place of opportunity for all.

Mike O’Brien is a member of the Seattle City Council. Rich Stolz is CEO of OneAmerica Votes and executive director of OneAmerica in Seattle.

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