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  (Source: LA Times)
Taxi unions say government regulation is essential to "safeguard" the public from itself

The U.S. isn't exactly a "free market" at times, with outright bribery -- condoned by the U.S. judicial system -- or collusive public-private cartels leading to some products and services being banned from the market.  Just ask Tesla Motors Inc. (TSLA) whose electric vehicles have been banned from sale in many states.  That debacle arose due to the fact that Tesla has no dealerships and fearful dealership lobbyists banded together to pay off state politicians to ban direct auto sales.

I. Carpooling Gets Digital Era Makeover

Now the same principle is being applied to stymie the emergency of another set of companies in the transportation sector -- cloud-driven ride-sharing services.

Ridesharing -- also known as carpooling -- involves members of the public contacting each other via a smartphone or PC internet networking service and arranging to ferry each other to various destinations for fees.  The practice in informal form is almost as old as the automobile itself, but in the digital age app-enabled ridesharing has seen an explosion in interest, threatening the commercial taxicab industry and the city officials who depend on that industry for revenue.

Uber is among the pioneering startups in cloud apps for paid carpooling/ridesharing.
[Image Source: Uber]

California often is characterized as a leader in onerous regulation, but at times it can flirt with being laissez-faire.  

On a state level, that has been the case with ride-sharing.  Many companies in the field are based in California and rolled out their first services in the state.  Startup ridesharing services Sidecar, Uber, and Lyft are all based in San Francisco, Calif.

Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar

After initially threatening fines against these in-state startups, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) backed down and agreed to create a new regulatory category [PDF] -- "Transportation Network Companies".  While perhaps not as good as no regulation at all, the move has allowed the service to grow within California without fear of being banned at the behest of the threatened taxicab lobby.

Ridesharing celebration
Ridesharing supporters celebrate CPUC's decision not to ban carpooling for cash.
[Image Source: Lyft]

Elsewhere, the trio are proving less lucky.  

All of the ride-sharing companies operate on the same principle, claiming that their fares are "voluntary" and admittedly fluctuating based on supply and demand.  Because they aren't charging rigid rates, they claim they are not subject to local ordinances in various cities that require taxicabs to pay per-cab tolls to city transportation departments/agencies.

Cities transportation agencies are pretty upset about not getting their cut of the pie.  They've circled the wagons in many jurisidictions, backed by the traditional taxicab industry who views these disruptive new players as an unlawful threat.

II. Philadelphia Shows Sidecar Drivers no "Brotherly Love"

The funny thing is that many cities supported ride-sharing as part of "eco-concious" initiatives when it was on a smaller scale and largely greenwashing.  But once it expanded and money became involved many cities had seen enough.

Sidecar -- a Google Inc. (GOOG) funded venture -- opened operations in Philadelphia, Penn., the "City of Brotherly Love" in late 2012.  But of late there's been little love for the disruptive startup from the city government.  

Sidecar infographic

In 2013 the Philadelphia Parking Authority (PPA) -- a city authority that derives its revenue from taxicab licensing -- decided it was time to put a stop to the business, which hadn't paid its toll.  It conducted a sting, seizing cars, ticketing drivers, and shutting down the operation.  Marty O’Rourke a PPA spokesman told TechCrunch:

[Sidecar drivers are] passing themselves off as taxis and they’re not.  It’s clearly not about technology. This is about public safety.  [The sting] was an operation to impound vehicles because they were operating illegally. If we find them out there again, we’ll impound them again.

Sidecar vigorously disagreed.  It points out that its drivers don't claim to be taxi drivers and are simply engaging in the time honored practice of carpooling with a small fee for the time and gas.

Philadelpha, Penn. has banned ridesharing. [Image Source: Visit Philly]

This month Sidecar was in court to try to defend itself, but it has yet to win the right to deliver services again or get some of its property back in Philadelphia.

III. Gotta Ban 'em All

Likewise Austin, Texas saw outcry from taxicab drivers who successfully petitioned the Austin City Council to in Feb. 2013 send cease and desist letters to the ride-sharing service ahead of the yearly South-by-Southwest (SXSW) festival.  Sidecar took advantage of the publicity, offering rides for free to spite city regulators.  But later in 2013 it had basically ceased operations in the city.  It's trying to petition the City Council to reconsider via a petition (which closed with 3,727 signatures), and local business leaders have also asked the council to change its mind.  But so far there has been no breakthrough.

Sidecar mirror
Austin, Texas has also banned Sidecar, Uber, and Lyft. [Image Source: Yelp]

Sidecar's last opportunity for action in Austin is the courts, where it filed a lawsuit in Mar. 2013.  Company VP Margaret Ryan blogs:

This lawsuit is bigger than Austin, Texas. What happens here matters for the entire sharing economy. Sharing resources is not a crime – it’s a solution for a better and more sustainable way of life. Rideshare is good for Austin and we’re going to defend this position in Austin City Court.

Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar all operate in Seattle, but in February the city council passed an ordinance that Sidecar says will effectively ban ridesharing in the city, if it takes effect.  That oridinance does not outright prohibit ridesharing, but limits each company to 150 passengers/drivers on the road at once.

Minneapolis, Minn. in Feb. 2014 announced it would ban/ticket any Lyft drivers who did not file for expensive taxicab licenses and would do likewise for participants in any other popular ride-sharing service.

Taxicab protest
Taxicab unions protest against Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar in San Francisco -- unregulated by the government, means a product is unsafe, they say. [Image Source: AP] 

In New York City -- where taxicab licenses ("medallions') cost up to $1M USD -- crackdowns are also picking up steam.  Efforts are also under way to ban the services in Las Vegas, Nev., Washington D.C., Chicago, Ill., and Cambridge, Mass..  In short the number of cities where paid carpoolers can legal operate is dwindling at an alarmingly rapid rate.

At this point quite literally the risk of carpooling is becoming that you will get your car impounded/seized and be forced to pay steep fines.

IV. California City Officials: If Paid Carpooling is Allowed Taxi Businesses Will Fail

But perhaps the most dire sign for Uber, Sidecar, and Lyft is that in their home state -- where they supposedly "won", local officials are threatening to do what state officials would not -- ban ridesharing.

Officials at the San Francisco International Airport in April 2013 banned the ridesharers from picking up or dropping off passengers at the airport.  

In June 2013 Los Angeles also banned ridesharing.  Los Angeles Yellow Cab manager William Rouse was elated at America's "captialist" system disallowing competition via strong-handed regulation.  He comments:

These rogue taxis are bypassing all safety regulations created to protect riders and drivers. Not only are these high-tech bandit cabs unsafe, they are breaking regulatory standards and disenfranchising safe, legal taxi drivers.

Lyft Lands
Lyft landed in LA -- and was promptly ordered to get out. [Image Source: Lyft]

And in San Francisco this month, city officials and taxicab drivers were eyeing a knockout blow to the carpoolers.  Comments Supervisor John Avalos:

We’ve gotten to almost a crisis mode.  We cannot let [the taxicab] industry fail.

Mark Gruberg, a spokesman for United Taxicab Workers, claims that carpoolers are a menace to society, stating:

People are being injured while they are fiddling, and their rules do not protect the public.  These are taxicabs in every sense of the word.

Lyft is banned
Lyft is too successful a business to be permitted, regulators argue. [Image Source: SF Examiner]

Critics are using a New Years Eve incident as a rallying cry.  On Dec. 31, 2013, a 6-year old in San Francisco was struck and killed by an Uber driver.  The driver was not transporting anyone at the time, but taxicab unions and the city departments that profit off them have gleefully seized upon the death as evidence that carpooling is "unsafe".

V. Taxi Business Owner Compares Carpoolers to Napster, Implies They're Stealing and Killing

Atlanta, Geor. Checker Cab owner/CEO Rick Hewlett writes in an op-ed:

Government has no more important responsibility than to provide for public safety, and many of our laws are for this purpose, including regulations covering vehicles for hire.

Because there is a clear potential for harm to life and limb when individuals are transported in automobiles by strangers, the reasons for regulating vehicles for hire, such as taxicabs and limousines, are obvious and crucial. Accordingly, there is a compelling need for government oversight and standards pertaining to all aspects of the vehicle for hire business.

Yellow Cab
Cab unions say if cities allow a free market and allow citizens to use their cars for carpooling businesses, they won't be able to stay in business. [Image Source: LA Times]

Chris Dolan, the San Francisco lawyer who is suing Uber over the New Year's Eve death comments to Mr. Hewlett:

New technology does not eliminate well-established legal principles.
Uber accident
The Uber driver's New Year's Eve accident may have given taxicabs unions and their government buddies just enough PR firepower to kill the ridesharing market. [Image Source: SF Chronicle]

But if carpooling is illegal, the question becomes where should the government stop.  After all, what about a roommate who gives you money for a ride to the grocery store?  What about a group of friends who pool their money to go to a concert?  If app-connected carpooling is illegal, aren't those people also breaking the law?

Mr. Hewlett didn't write about such examples, but he did compare Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar to Napster, the infamous P2P company that based its business on stealing musicians' copyrighted work.  

Will Lyft and others be destined for a slow, sad ride into the sunset? [Image Source: Lyft]

No matter how crazy that comparison it is, it's not atypical.  Ride sharing and carpooling for pay in the U.S. -- once a booming field of dreams -- has been methodically shut down and beaten back by the loving hand of government regulators and taxicab industry.  Thanks to those cartels, this once thriving sector is now on the death's door, as the nation's top cities approach a ubiquitous ban on sharing, which they say is anything but caring.

Sources: SF Examiner, Lyft and Sidecar, Fox News, California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) [PDF]

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RE: Seize your car?
By Reflex on 4/5/2014 7:28:47 PM , Rating: 1
No, this was far worse than anything I have seen anywhere in the US ever. It may 'sound' like Vegas to you, but having done both no it was not. It was bad on a level you apparently cannot imagine.

I also think that your stereotypes of China and what they are 'used to' are pretty ignorant. China has a middle and upper class as well, and when leaving an international airport a significant number of the travelers are either foreign or middle to upper class, yet there was no real service for them outside of very expensive limousine services, which were likewise risky in different ways due to a lack of regulation (seriously, organized crime there operates limos as well as those are often high value targets).

I do not suggest that Lyft, Uber or others are horrible. I rode in Uber down in San Jose and it was clean, professional and well done. But that is missing the point. Once the standard is set others will enter that market, and a race to the bottom will begin. I have seen the end results of that.

What amazes me most is how foreigners I know who come here are stunned that they do not have to worry about the safety of a transportation option here. That our vehicles are relatively uniform, that drivers know where they are going, and that prices are up front without negotiation. Yes of course there are bad stories, outliers, and areas with poor cab services(usually the less regulated areas). But in general if you get out of an airport in the USA you can hop in any cab waiting and go where you want to go without any sense of concern. That is NOT the case in most of the world, and it is something others envy us over. Why you want to see that go away I do not understand, I can only guess that you haven't travelled much.

As for your last point, citation needed. No one has blocked Uber, Lyft or others. If they are already exceeding all of the standards of taxi services, they should have no problem simply registering as a taxi service. Based on other aspects they offer, they would likely clean up in my opinion. Why they are avoiding that I can only assume has to do with maximizing profit rather than competing on a level playing field. I have never seen any real world evidence that markets self-regulate, and in my state we have had several recent examples of deregulation at the behest of industry that have gone horribly awry.

RE: Seize your car?
By Mint on 4/6/2014 6:30:40 AM , Rating: 2
You make some good points, Reflex, particularly regarding safety, but your concern about the "race to the bottom" isn't warranted, IMO. Official taxis have distinguishing markers, so there's no need to worry about ridesharing tainting their industry.

Still, there needs to be a different registration system for ridesharing. Taxi licences are very expensive, and are only worth it for full time taxi drivers.

RE: Seize your car?
By Reflex on 4/6/2014 12:45:01 PM , Rating: 2
The 'official markers' you mention are widely copied in Asia and India. There is no way to distinguish official from unofficial assuming that you as a traveler even know what the official marker is. The standard recommendation is to only get in a taxi called from your hotel or by airport staff. The problem with that advice is that you have no way of knowing if the staff member themselves is on the take from someone.

RE: Seize your car?
By JasonMick (blog) on 4/6/2014 11:06:23 AM , Rating: 3
As for your last point, citation needed. No one has blocked Uber, Lyft or others. If they are already exceeding all of the standards of taxi services, they should have no problem simply registering as a taxi service.

You can't just "register as a taxi service".

It's really nothing to do with safety, cleanliness, or standards.

For example in NYC you pay anywhere from $100K to $1M USD to operate a cab, depending on city district.
I do not suggest that Lyft, Uber or others are horrible. I rode in Uber down in San Jose and it was clean, professional and well done. But that is missing the point. Once the standard is set others will enter that market, and a race to the bottom will begin. I have seen the end results of that.

So all this regulation (aka, "payola") must be leading to some great accountability right?


Of 16 fatal or serious crashes since 2009 examined by The Post, only two of the drivers had their licenses revoked, according to a review based on a Freedom of Information Act request.
The industry regularly hires shady consulting groups to manipulate the data to try to make it look as if taxi drivers are safer that normal drivers. But they actively resist the actual accident numbers being made public, as do the traffic authorities.

Taxicab drivers that killed people are still allowed to continue operating on the streets in New York City.

Pay-to-play protection regulations rackets have very little to do with public safety and everything to do with both local officials and the businesses in on the racket maximizing profits.

You seem to be unaware of how much dirty dollars are involved, how little the regulators care about actual public good, and how services can't just "register" as "freedom to drive" isn't free.

"Freedom to drive" is fee.... sometimes a million dollar one.

RE: Seize your car?
By Reflex on 4/6/14, Rating: 0
RE: Seize your car?
By RedemptionAD on 4/7/2014 10:42:09 AM , Rating: 2
To be fair about all this, a permit of $50 a year per driver for up to 150 passengers a year would be a fair way to take care of this issue. It really isn't only about the money in this case although it does play a role as it does in everything, it is a case of accountability in case bad stuff happens, like getting car insurance.
The article you quoted is simple incompetence at work in the system which is definitely an issue that the government needs to fix, however that is an internal issue and therefore not relevant to this issue at hand.

RE: Seize your car?
By RedemptionAD on 4/7/2014 10:45:10 AM , Rating: 2
Edit: I should have wrote 700 passengers a year for the permit.

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