Don’t regulate non-taxis as taxis

I’ve been following the news about Uber and Lyft for some time. For those unfamiliar, Uber and Lyft are taxi-like services that allow people to schedule rides using an app on their smartphone. Unlike traditional taxis, riders are able to leave reviews on drivers, and drivers are able to leave reviews for passengers. This acts as a sort of reputation system, which helps drivers know if a passenger is to be avoided, and vice versa. Customers of Uber and Lyft also know the price of the ride upfront, something that is incredibly rare with a traditional taxi. And, probably the most important feature of Uber & Lyft that make these services distinct from traditional taxi services is the decentralized nature of the business, there is no central office through which rides are dispatched, it is all handled through the smartphone app.

Back in February, the Attorney for the City of Houston issued a cease and desist order against Uber. This happened after Uber asked potential customers to contact the City Council, and over 10,000 people signed an online petition that was emailed to members of the Houston City Council. The order from the City Attorney reads, “Please consider this as a formal demand that your client, Uber, cease and desist from transmitting or aiding in the transmission of form e-mails to City officials regarding the adoption of an ordinance to accommodate their enterprise. Despite my informal request to you by telephone…, the excessive number of e-mails has gone unabated, to the point that it has become harassing in nature and arguably unlawful. Failure to cease and desist will be met with appropriate action by the City.
David M. Feldman
City Attorney
City of Houston”

Other cease and desist orders have been issued by various municipalities across the country, though these usually involve demands that Uber and Lyft stop operating in said jurisdiction. Most of the time that either company gets a letter from a government agency, it is after an established traditional taxi service complains that Uber and Lyft aren’t following the rules. However, Uber and Lyft aren’t traditional taxi services, and shouldn’t be regulated as such.

The debate has taken place in city after city, and state after state. How should these non-taxi taxi services be regulated?

The City Council in Birmingham, Alabama is considering a proposal that would bar Uber and Lyft from operating in the Magic City. Assistant City Attorney Michael Fliegel said, “We set out to establish a set of common sense regulations that guarantee the safety of the public,” adding “We want you to come and play, but play fairly.”

By “play fairly” Fliegel means that non-taxis should follow the same rules as taxis. In response, Kyle Whitmire from the Alabama Media Group wrote, “If you have a problem with a cab driver, who do you call? As it turns out, the job of policing taxis belongs to the Birmingham Police Department. However, there’s no easy link on the department’s website or information there about how to file a report.
I’ve heard the horror stories, too: dirty cabs, rude drivers and wait times that can stretch for hours
In short, Birmingham’s regulations are not working for our existing taxi services.”

Why then, should one set of broken regulations be applied to a business that isn’t a taxi service? The Colorado Legislature recently created the legal distinction Transportation Network Companies (TNC), which have limited governmental oversight. As one former taxi driver, now Uber driver, wrote, “Taxi business owners insist — figuratively speaking — that cellos (uberX and Lyft) are indeed violins (taxi companies) and they should be treated as such… Obviously, the Colorado [Legislature] didn’t accept that cellos and violins are identical, and noticed profound differences between taxis and TNCs.”

While I’m certainly no fan of creating more government regulations, I think it would be wise for more legislative bodies to realize that cellos aren’t violins, and should not be regulated in the same manner.