by Michael Sarko
– The Capitol Hill Times -
The streets of Seattle and other major cities have looked a bit different over the past year or two, especially in Capitol Hill where parking is a persistent problem for visitors and residents. In addition to the regular cars, commercial vehicles, and cabs that we’re used to seeing, there has been a proliferation of black town cars, miniature smart cars, and cars with giant, pink mustaches. All of these are alternative modes of for-hire transportation relying on smartphone applications to book and pay for service. Recent review of these services by the Seattle City Council may make app-based for-hire transport difficult or impossible to operate here.
“The Committee has sent a strong message that they support the status quo over opportunity, transportation choices, and safety,” said Brooke Steger, general manager of app-based car service Uber, in an official statement. She is referring to the City Council’s Committee on Taxi, For-Hire and Limousine Regulations, who voted in favor of a contentious measure that would cap the maximum number of drivers operating in any for-hire transportation service in Seattle, at least temporarily until the full council has more data regarding payment, safety, and health issues related to the services.
There has been some confusion regarding how the cap would be implemented. As clarified by a position statement by City Councilmember Sally Bagshaw, an outspoken opponent of the cap, the limit would allow for 150 vehicles operating at any given time for each for-hire service, not 150 total for-hire vehicles for all of them combined. This has different implications for the fleets of different services, but each major for-hire service in Seattle agrees that the cap is unjust.
Uber was founded in 2009 by Garrett Camp in San Francisco. The service uses a smartphone app to connect people with transportation approved by the company’s local branch. The service includes a classic black town car option, a low-cost option in a smaller vehicle called uberX, and a variation that uses SUVs. While Uber’s standard black town cars would remain untouched, the less expensive and more environmental option, uberX, would be affected by the cap. Steger offered further insight into the company’s opposition of the vehicle cap and the impact that it will have on their drivers.
“There are hundreds of drivers on the uberX system that will be shut out from earning a living under a capped system. About half of the drivers on uberX in Seattle are former taxi drivers and one of the reasons for that migration is the flexibility in the system,” she said. Uber does allow its drivers to set their own schedules and Steger claims that many drivers use this as an opportunity to work around school, family obligations, and other pursuits.
Councilmember Bagshaw and Uber Seattle have also discussed the effect that the cap may have on women drivers, who make up a growing minority of for-hire and taxi drivers in Seattle. Bagshaw defended the 150-drivers cap on these grounds, writing,
“We had two options at that point: accept an amendment offered by my other colleagues to cap TNC drivers at 300 TOTAL city-wide. The TNCs [Transportation Network Companies] said this would kill their burgeoning businesses in Seattle because many of their drivers are part-timers, and a 300-driver cap would prevent them from driving. That option was unacceptable to me because it failed to consider the needs of riders, and it also would have virtually eliminated options for women drivers who are breaking into the system. So I opted for another approach.”
Steger echoes Councilmember Bagshaw’s concerns, saying, “We are seeing an increasing number of female drivers, which is fantastic. Drivers know who they are picking up, passengers know whose vehicle they are getting into, and no cash is exchanged at the end of the ride, making this system safer for driver and passenger alike.”
There are several other transportation alternatives throughout Seattle affected by the cap. Lyft, another service started in San Francisco, is the company behind the now-iconic pink car mustaches. The funny automotive facial hair identifies cars for hire, all driven by people who are not professional drivers in the same sense as taxi drivers or even Uber drivers. Ridesharing services like this have been the focus of much of the debate in Seattle and in other cities because there is little to no regulation on what are essentially personal vehicles. As such, the City has no authority to enforce the safety, sanitation or financial regulations applied to licensed taxi and limo services. As Lyft depends on a very large, very part-time fleet of personal vehicles driven by people who cannot devote themselves to a full-time driving schedule, the cap would render the company’s business model unsustainable.
Other alternative transportation services would be unaffected. Programs like Zipcar and Car2Go are not for-hire, but more akin to short-term car rental services. Their fleets will remain as they are for the time being.
The full Seattle City Council is expected to vote on a final form of for-hire and ride-sharing legislation some time later this month. There is no word about how long the proposed cap would last and how it might change with additional data and regulations.
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