For 23 years, the city of Seattle concluded there wasn’t enough consumer demand to warrant increasing the amount of regular taxicabs licensed to operate in the city.
But after taxi competitors including Uber town cars, for-profit ridesharing companies and flat-rate for-hire cars took root in Seattle and continued to thrive, the city decided to survey that demand a new way.
This year’s survey, to be presented Tuesday night at a City Council committee meeting, indicates there is more passenger-service demand than previously thought. But much of that demand is tied to increasing interest in alternatives to taxis.
“A large part of the market is now being served by limousines, for-hire vehicles and ‘rideshare” services,’ ” says one of the PowerPoint slides to be shown Tuesday. “The market for these services is growing rapidly, and vehicles in service are growing to meet it.”
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The city’s past taxi-demand analyses relied heavily on response-time information. For more than two decades, that information has indicated average response times have stayed consistently at about 10 minutes, said Denise Movius, deputy director for the Department of Finance and Administrative Services.
But the latest city-commissioned analysis, conducted by Taxi Research Partners and the Tennessee Transportation & Logistics Foundation, concluded that response times aren’t a sufficient metric for judging the need for additional passenger-service vehicles. The firms said that once many customers have been burned by an unsatisfactory response time, they tend to seek different transportation options.
One of those customers, 23-year-old Amber Jin, showed up at a swanky, Capitol Hill party last week thrown for the drivers and passengers of Lyft, a phone application-based ride-sharing company known for the hot-pink mustache on the front of its drivers’ vehicles.
Surrounded by bright-pink balloons, disco lights and giant projections of friendly driver-passenger interactions on the walls behind her, she spoke to a crowd about how she had sworn off taxis because of horrible customer service from dispatchers and unreliable pickup times. About 100 people at the “Support the ’Stache” event listened to her as they sipped drinks and ate crepes from a food truck outside.
Ride-sharing companies such as Lyft, Sidecar and UBERx — especially popular among younger consumers — use a phone app to dispatch drivers to passengers. The app automatically tracks down drivers closest to the passenger.
With Lyft and Sidecar, passengers choose how much they want to pay the driver. UBERx, Uber’s ride-sharing platform, charges about the same rate as taxis.
“The estimates of when they’ll pick you up are pretty spot-on,” Jin said. “I don’t think taxis have had any reason to become more efficient until now. It’s these small tech businesses that are mixing things up and making things better.”
But the investments made in some ride-sharing companies are anything but small. Earlier this year, Lyft raised at least $80 million in venture capital.
Lyft co-founder and President John Zimmer, who spoke at the Capitol Hill party, said his talks with city representatives this summer have been “productive.”
That does not bode well for some taxi drivers who say they’ve recently had to work as many as 12 hours a day, seven days a week, to make up for business lost to new competition.
In addition to hundreds of dollars they have to pay in city permits and state taxes, drivers who don’t own one of the 688 taxis licensed to operate in the city have to pay hundreds a week to lease a taxi from its owner.
At protests this summer, including one in which taxi drivers and operators completely blocked off Fourth Avenue, members of the Western Washington Taxicab Operators Association asked the City Council and Mayor Mike McGinn why they should adhere to strict city regulations while companies providing similar services don’t.
The Department of Finance and Administrative Services has deemed Lyft, Sidecar and UBERx illegal because they operate for-hire services without any city permits, but city inspectors have not gone after any of its drivers.
City Council President Sally Clark said she’s open-minded about finding a way to regulate those companies to make them legal, just as the state of California did this year.
Both the Mayor’s Office and City Council members have said they will use the findings of this year’s survey to help them decide how to regulate taxis, for-hire vehicles and ride-sharing vehicles in the future.
In a statement, Clark said the council, at Tuesday’s meeting, “will discuss regulation of taxis and for-hire vehicles with an eye toward safety, reliability, and affordability for passengers as well as fair leases for drivers.”
Alexa Vaughn: 206-464-2515 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @AlexaVaughn.