Who Am I?

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A nobody; a nitwit; a pilot; a motorcyclist; a raconteur; a lover...of life - who loves to laugh, who tries to not take myself (or anything) too seriously...just a normal guy who knows his place in the universe by being in touch with my spiritual side. What more is there?

23 May 2018

Cab Driver Stories: Taxis versus Uber, Part I

Throughout the world, and especially in the U.S., public transportation of people for hire is regulated. Whether it's a small municipal bus service or one like Greyhound that travels across state lines, operators are subject to various government regulations. Whether it's a small air charter operator with a single-engine Cessna, a little helicopter giving rides at a county fair, or a big airline like JetBlue, same deal.

The Department of Transportation regulates for-hire travel here in the U.S. And for good reason. We don't want just anyone starting an air service and carrying passengers around for a fee. We expect that there would be some minimum standards of service. Pilots need to be properly trained and licensed; airplanes need to be inspected and maintained and airworthy; the operation must be defined as to scope and area.  You wouldn't want a charter operator in flat and swampy Pensacola to fly up to and start doing business in, say, Colorado without special training on the hazards of mountain/winter flying.

Wherever you look, whether it's a railroad or just a shuttle bus in your home town the service is regulated by some agency or entity. Even taxicabs have traditionally been subject to regulations, although mostly on the state or local level. We put up with such regulations because we understand that there needs to be some sort of governmental oversight and scrutiny in the interest of public safety.

Then along came Uber...

Uber initially claimed that they were not taxis, oh no! Uber was merely an informal, internet-based “ride-sharing” service by which people could arrange for a car to come and take them somewhere for a fee. Why, that's not like a taxi at all!  Uber claimed that they were only an intermediary (just an internet app, really), matching up like-minded passengers with independent drivers.  The fact that the drivers actually work for Uber, and that Uber insures the trip, collects the money for the trip and pays the driver...well, they were swept under the carpet as inconsequential.  Not like a taxi at all!

Along the way, Uber morphed into a “ride-hailing” service.  And what kind of vehicle do we hail? Right, a taxi. Local governments were too stupid to notice the subtle change.  And in any case it didn't matter - Uber already got their nose under the tent and there was no stopping it.

From the federal down to the local levels, our government is typically run by old people who are generally not hip to all this new technology with which we're constantly bombarded. All across the land, moronic local governments (like the one here in Pensacola), smitten and awed by the shiny technology of hailing a cab ON OUR PHONE!...gave Uber carte-blanche to operate with basically ZERO regulation or oversight. No special driver licensing or background checks/fingerprinting, no vehicle licensing or inspection...no commercial insurance...no nothing. Anybody with a car could now be a cab-driver!

(To clarify, a taxi must have expensive commercial insurance in place for EVERY mile it drives here in Pensacola, whether empty or with a fare. On the other hand, Uber only provides commercial-level coverage for the passenger when they are in an Uber car. At all other times the Uber driver relies on his personal auto insurance policy. It's a clever manipulation of the rules and could arguably be considered insurance fraud.)

What happened next was predictable: the dismantling of the taxi industry. Full-time cabbies who depended on driving a taxi for their livelihood found themselves put out of work by a bunch of part-time, unregulated independent-contractors driving for Uber as a “side-hustle.” Nationwide, cab companies have been systematically put out of business by these “ride-hailing” companies which governments are now calling “transportation network companies” which is just a bullshit way of saying “a cab company but we don't want to call that.”

Here in Pensacola, the taxi business at the airport is virtually dead; Uber has taken over. In this town, the only thing taxis have going for them is that the Navy doesn't allow Uber on the base...yet. There are approximately 4,000 sailors and Marines here, fresh out of boot camp, most of whom cannot own cars and all of whom want to be OFF THE BASE! on the weekend. So from Friday afternoon through Sunday evening there just aren't enough taxis to handle the demand. For a cab driver, you can make a pretty decent living just working the base on weekends. Which is what my friend, Terry and I did...or used to do. But once the Navy starts letting Ubers on the base, it's game-over for the taxis. I suspect that'll happen sooner rather than later.

The question is: Should the transportation of people for hire be regulated on the local level as it is on the federal? Should there be any regulation at all? Many states, like Florida have abolished their statewide rules for taxis and vehicles for hire, leaving it up to local municipalities to make their own rules...or not. The states hilariously claim that this “levels the playing field” which it absolutely does not. Most cities simply follow the state's lead. But not all.

For instance, Pensacola still has their “legacy” rules for taxis in place, which seem onerous now compared to the free-reign they've given the “ride-hailing” services. The city even removed the one-and-only taxi stand we had downtown. If our idiot mayor thought he'd see less traffic downtown at night on the weekends, he didn't anticipate the substitution of the comparably few (or at least finite number of) taxis for the jam-up of unlimited Uber cars that now prowl downtown trying to snag the closest “ping.”

If anything, traffic is worse.  And here's why.

In the past, taxis would cruise up the street. In a time-honored tradition, someone would step out from the curb and hail one. The cab would stop, the people would climb in, and the cab would be underway again with fairly minimal delay. Now, an Uber passenger clicks on the app from inside the bar/club.  The Uber car goes to the pickup point, double-parks in the street with its flashers on and waits for the rider(s) to eventually come out of the bar, which they typically don't do until they receive a notification that the Uber car has arrived. The police have begun hassling such rideshare drivers for blocking traffic. Gee, whodathunkit? One problem for another. (Yes, I drive for Uber now. No, I don't work downtown on the weekend.)

Ultimately we have to decide how much government intervention we really need in our lives. Right now, people seem to want it both ways. We want air travel, buses and railroads to be well-regulated, but not taxis! We're willing to make an exception for Uber/Lyft because of the incredible convenience they provide, and we thus gloss-over or summarily ignore the issue of regulation and public safety.  Seems to me that carrying people for hire is carrying people for hire no matter what particular mode of transportation it is, whether they're in a four-seat Cessna or a four-seat UberX.

I'll deal with “the taxi problem” in Part II.

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