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Why Seattle’s approach to rideshares is all wrong

Lyft's logo is a pink mustache. (Lyft)

As the city attempts to regulate rideshares like Uber and Lyft, officials admit that the purpose is to benefit Seattle taxis hit by the changing industry. But their approach is wrong. The council is grasping onto a fading past while transportation advances into the future.

RELATED: Uber driver counters Teamsters’ claims

I had my first experience with Seattle taxis a few years back — before Uber and Lyft came to town. The plan was to visit an old friend in Wallingford. I first took a ferry into the city and found taxis lining the streets around Colman Dock. I hopped in one for a five-mile ride to Wallingford. Without rush hour traffic, that trip should take about 12 minutes, depending on the route.

It had been a few years since visiting Seattle. I didn’t immediately notice the ride was taking a bit longer than it should have. The driver asked me about myself, where I was from. We chatted a bit.

By the time he exited I-5 only to turn around and enter back onto the freeway, I began to realize that Wallingford could not be this far from downtown. I got out my phone, checked the map, and realized the driver had taken me all the way to Northgate where he turned around and then drove me back down to Wallingford.

Once at the destination, the digitized price tag lit up inside the taxi. That ride cost me more than $50.

I’d like to say that story is an anomaly. But it’s not. Even trying the town car version of Seattle taxis. Every trip after that was a similar version of that story. That’s one reason — a big reason — why Uber and Lyft have prospered in Seattle.

Seattle taxis vs rideshare

Uber and Lyft work because they aren’t taxis. The tech that rideshares use make them more accountable and more efficient. I had called up and ordered a taxi before in Seattle, only to be told that I needed to know the exact address of where I was. Then scramble to find that address, only to be ditched by the taxi driver who opted to take another ride — and not be notified about it. That doesn’t happen with rideshare.

Now Seattle is attempting to regulate rideshare services, known as transportation network companies, or TNCs. The city council directed staff to craft legislation that will raise the base fare charged by rideshares. In theory, this will help align them with taxis.

Councilmember Bruce Harrell, however, said there is no set rate hike, yet. The council currently wants data from rideshare companies to better regulate them. Mainly, it wants rate and driver pay data.

There’s a lot behind this effort. The basic thing to understand is that rideshares compete with Seattle taxis. Those taxi drivers are represented by a union — the Teamsters. The union wants Seattle to change the rules for rideshares because its drivers have trouble competing with the new industry. One argument behind this is rideshare drivers aren’t making enough money — lower than minimum wage. Therefore, they want the city to step in and defend them. Some drivers have told the council as much.

Yet other drivers counter that, such as Katrina, who told the city council Monday that members were being “taken for a ride by the Teamsters.”

“When have you ever heard an employee offered double pay and they say ‘no,'” she said. “It doesn’t happen. I’m not an employee. I’m a contractor. I’ve been driving for Uber for three years. I appreciate where you are coming from .… taxis are greatly regulated. Let’s work on deregulating them and bring them into the 21st century and not drag us back.”

“Without Uber and Lyft I don’t know what I’d do for an income because this city has turned into a millennial city,” another driver, Virginia, said. “Everything is moving forward, we can’t go backwards. You would put me out of business (by raising the rates). I’d be homeless because there’s nothing else I can do.”

“I drove yesterday from 3 a.m. to 12 p.m. and I grossed $330 in about nine hours,” another driver named Mike told the council. “That’s about $36 an hour … I have a hard time getting below $15 an hour — net. Any rideshare driver who says they get $3 an hour is BSing you … Don’t change things to mess it up for the rest of us.”

Seattle council doesn’t understand rideshare

Councilmember Harrell said Monday that the move to regulate rideshares is to protect Seattle taxis; to create a fair market for “legacy” taxi drivers.

“I would remind folks who are really fascinated with the new technology that there are people who have worked for decades in this industry keeping our mobile transportation alive,” Harrell said. “I don’t think it is consistent with our policies not to consider the legacy participants in addressing issues of fairness moving forward.”

From the start of this legislation process, the Seattle City Council is showing that they lack a significant understanding of the industry they are trying to regulate. They are putting Seattle taxis in the same field as rideshares.

Taxis and rideshares are no more related than a typewriter and a computer; or a horse and buggy and a car. They hold as much in common as a bus driver does to a taxi driver. Sure, they ferry people around, and they all use wheels. But still, not the same. If the council wants to throw taxis in with rideshares, they might as well throw in bus drivers, ferry captains, and monorail operators. Heck, why not include the guy who operates the Seattle Great Wheel; that moves people around, too, and makes as much sense.

Seattle taxis had their chance. They had opportunities to advance and serve riders. They didn’t and what we got were $50 rides to Wallingford. A new industry was born to make up for their failure. The worry, and sympathy, over a new industry taking over an older, less efficient one is understandable. But the answer can’t be to hobble rideshare drivers.

The council should help bring Seattle taxis up-to-date; to evolve with the rideshare industry. It shouldn’t shackle the city’s transportation system to an era of typewriters and taxis.

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