June 26, 2016

Grains of Salt (v10): Can I Get a Lyft?

A recent Post-Standard editorial supported bringing ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft to upstate New York.

The benefits, including being able to pull up an app and see where the drivers are and what they look like before making a decision on which ride to take, are appealing to many, including travelers who use these services in New York City (the only place it's legal in New York, natch) and other places around the country and around the world.

The editorial mentions some "legitimate concerns" such as background checks ("not as thorough as they need to be"); the drivers, who are independent contractors not employees, having "to sue to get basic workplace protections" and a sometime lack of accessibility for wheelchair users, which can be filled by "specialized services already in place in Central New York."  And there is the issue of insurance, which the state legislature failed to resolve before the end of session.

The State Senate did pass a bill, however the Assembly did not do the same, effectively killing these services for at least a little longer.  Some concerns were the ones addressed in the editorial, and of course there's always the downstate Dems vs. upstate Reps that is claimed to be at the root of all evil in the legislature.

The Senate bill would have allowed each city, town or village to pass their own regulations, which could add even more clutter to our already messy under-the-back-stairs-closet patchwork of regulations that make it hard for businesses to know how to legally do business here.

And, of course, the whole thing about the 'gig' economy, as I heard the application-based business model called, is that it's not encumbered by all of the regulations that a bricks-and-mortar business has to navigate -- I mean, that's what makes them attractive to the entrepreneurs who get involved with them, as well as to customers who appreciate the simplicity of doing business with these firms.

The editorial also noted that upstate politicians, including Stephanie Miner, Syracuse's mayor, "embrace Uber and Lyft for the jobs (emphasis added) and transportation options they bring." Those jobs may very well come at a cost to existing jobs, as Syracuse has a number of taxi companies currently serving the area, employing who knows how many drivers for the big companies, as well as the many who appear to be independent contractors.

Furthermore, Syracuse has regulated rates, from the drop charge (the initial charge that's on the meter before the taxi pulls away from the curb, currently $2.80), the per-mile price (currently $2.50), and, for airport taxis, the flat rate zone price to get from Hancock International Airport to downtown, the University, to my house here in The Valley, or anywhere else.

And, don't forget the licensing fees, renewal fees, and the limitation on the number of ground transportation licenses that can be issued in the city, currently 200 plus whatever is needed for the airport.

Would all of the current rules and regs that apply to taxis apply to ride-hailing companies? Would the number of licenses be expanded to accommodate an unknown number of entrepreneurs, those jobs the mayor and others are looking forward to? Would the same rates, metering and other rules apply?

I'm all for expanding opportunity for people who want to work in, or take advantage of, the emerging app-based market. What I'm not in favor of are special rules that apply to some businesses but not others, as I've pointed out in prior posts (including here, here and here).

All hail Uber and Lyft, as long as taxi companies are allowed to participate on a level playing field. And it probably wouldn't hurt to eliminate some of the regulatory burden on the taxi companies, whether we Uber and Lyft or not.