THE so-called ride-share services proliferating in Seattle such as UberX, Sidecar and Lyft are the symptom of a very broken taxi-regulatory system.
There is no doubt these unlicensed and uninspected cars are taking fares from legal, city licensed taxi and for-hire drivers.
But the fact remains that there is demand for these new services because the city has not issued a single regular taxicab license in 23 years. The city has also severely limited the customers for-hire vehicles may pick up.
Seattle has grown tremendously since 1990, when the last regular taxi license was issued. As many as 450 of the current 688 taxis in the city are obligated to the airport year-round or the cruise terminal and other tourist venues much of the time.
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No wonder people say, “You can’t find a taxi in Seattle.” The city has grown by more than 120,000 people since 1990, when there were no city taxis at the airport and no cruise terminals.
Because the city has not issued a license for so long, a regular taxi license acquired for a few thousand dollars 20 years ago is worth $360,000 today.
The ride-share companies, financed with millions from Wall Street and Silicon Valley, came riding into Seattle because the city was not meeting its taxi-market needs.
In 2013, Seattle is projected to have more hotel guests than ever. Cruise ships are expected to bring almost a million new visitors to the city. Convention business is up 30 percent and Sea-Tac is one of the fastest-growing airports in the nation.
Growth is driving the demand for more taxi services, yet city regulators contend there is no need to increase licenses or allow customers more access to licensed, for-hire vehicles.
The 195 city-licensed for-hire drivers are small, local businesses caught in the middle. We can immediately serve the pent-up taxi demand, but current regulations keep us from picking up anyone hailing a ride on a city street.
In King County, for-hire drivers can pick up hailing passengers, whether from hotels or patrons emerging from bars and other night spots. Our for-hire cars are regulated exactly the same way as taxis and undergo the same safety inspections. All our owners and drivers pay the same fees as taxis.
We are safe, insured, inspected and 80 percent of the for-hire fleet is hybrid or compressed natural-gas-powered. The city’s restrictions limit us to about 20 percent of the business, which contributes to the shortage of taxi services and the arrival of illegal ride-share companies in Seattle.
The city has a duty to protect consumers and the public by ensuring the safety of taxi and for-hire services. By allowing UberX, Sidecar and Lyft to operate without enforcing existing laws for licensing, insurance and vehicle inspection, the city is failing in that duty and putting public safety at risk.
Both the taxi and for-hire industries are changing. New innovations in smartphone applications that allow customers to hail rides are revolutionizing the business and providing better service to consumers. It is past due for city regulators to realize how much the industry has changed and the demand for taxi service has grown.
The Seattle City Council has taken a positive step forward.
We ask they take three reasonable steps as quickly as possible: Enforce laws relating to ride-share companies. Give for-hire vehicles, which are significantly underused, the ability to pick up flagging customers. Issue more taxi licenses.
After 23 years, licensed drivers deserve the chance to own and operate a taxicab without coming up with $360,000.
Samatar Guled is president of the Seattle-King County For Hire Association. He was a taxi driver in the city of Seattle for seven years.