The Palm Beach County Commission is scheduled to consider an ordinance regulating Uber Tuesday. The ordinance would allow Uber to operate legally in the County, with several conditions, while acknowledging a distinction between traditional taxicabs and vehicle for hire companies like Uber.
If taxicab companies sought any sympathy for their cause, they’ll find none here. Our regulatory regime essentially enforces a cartel, and they’ve long been in bed with the agencies that regulate them in order to maintain monopolistic pricing power. On a recent trip between downtown WPB and PBIA, I compared a trip of the same length on Uber versus a taxicab. The taxicab cost $16 versus $8 for Uber. My last experience with a taxicab was getting off Tri-Rail in downtown WPB to take a cab to my apartment. Pretty much everything that could have gone wrong did. The driver didn’t speak English, the cab smelled, and the credit card reader was broken. As my wife and I exited the cab and tried to find enough cash to pay, the cab driver kept the meter running. And if you need a receipt for business expense purposes? Good luck with that.
Innovation in this space is long overdue and that is what ride hailing companies such as Uber and Lyft are bringing to the table. The key point that needs to be understood in this conversation is that self-regulation is working better than government regulation in this market. How often does the County inspect its drivers and their cars? There are thousands of cabs in Palm Beach County, certainly. I would be surprised if the cars were inspected once per month. With ride hailing apps like Lyft and Uber, feedback is instantaneous and drivers are rated after every ride. Uber has a policy that if a driver rating falls below a certain threshold, they are kicked off the service. Economists surveyed strongly agree that ridehailing services improve consumer welfare (economist speak for well-being of consumers).
Ridehailing services hold the potential to be much more than a better taxi service, though. Uber’s stated goal is a world with less cars, not more, with UberPool – truly ‘ridesharing’. Here’s an infographic explaining how it works.
South Florida isn’t blessed with a resilient, multimodal transportation system, to say the least. We’ve put all our eggs in one basket: Automobility and prayed for the best. Never-ending lane widenings and congestion seems to be our fate. How do we break this vicious cycle of car dependency? I believe ridehailing services are part of the solution. Not the answer, but part of the response. Since these ride hailing services came into existence, I’ve cut my driving even further, namely on regional trips. Before Uber, taking Tri-Rail was more daunting. Hailing a taxi is always a dicey proposition; I’ve had numerous experiences with early morning flights and unresponsive taxi companies. Call, call, call… Finally have a taxi dispatched, promised to arrive in 10 minutes, only for it to arrive in 30. This unreliability is part of the reason I chose to drive in the past.
With ride hailing, I know exactly where my ride is and how long until it arrives. This makes for reliable transportation to/from the station and solves the ‘last mile’ problem of transit to a large degree. This problem is especially relevant in South Florida because Tri-Rail isn’t built around walkable neighborhoods, so connection to your end destination is usually inevitable.
Example screenshot of Uber hailing:
Now, I’ve been using Tri-Rail for my regional trips to Fort Lauderdale and to FLL. I credit Uber for making it a cheaper, easier, and more convenient option. In fact, I’m on Tri-Rail as I type this, on my way to downtown Fort Lauderdale.
If a marginal number of people decide to forego car ownership because services like carshare and ridehailing make it feasible to do so, we can start to reclaim the parking craters in our downtowns and walkable neighborhoods. With less car ownership, less parking can be provided in new developments and parking craters can be redeveloped. A virtuous cycle of lowered car dependency, less need for parking, more walkable neighborhoods, and still lowered car dependency can take hold. This strategy must be coupled with smart transportation investments to connect our productive places (walkable downtowns) first. Chief among them: Tri-Rail Coastal Link and All Aboard Florida. Ridehailing services and carshare for intracity trips, when you need a car. Tri-Rail Coastal Link and AAF for intercity trips in our region. I can already hear the naysayers. “That won’t work here, South Florida is a car place!” Trends can reach a tipping point sooner than one might think. Our charge as a region is to allow choice and competition, and a better South Florida will result.
Email the County Commissioners, let them know you support ridehailing services:
Detail from the Palm Beach Post story:
Palm Beach County commissioners will take a first vote for new plans for firms such as Uber at 11 a.m. Tuesday at their regular meeting. A public hearing and final vote is set for Aug. 18.
The industry would be split into two categories: regular taxis and app-based ride providers.
Taxi firms would have to have commercial car liability insurance, but the app-dependent freelance drivers could have either commercial or regular liability insurance with a minimum of $1 million per occurrence. The issue of when an Uber driver is covered by whom has been debated nationwide. Uber says drivers are covered by their personal insurance until the moment they tap their smartphone to accept a fare, and Uber’s insurer is a backup.
Freelance drivers would not need special taxi IDs but instead could use a company ID badge or a smart phone app for identification.
Taxi drivers would need “Level II” background checks, in which drivers’ fingerprints are checked against state and federal criminal history databases. Freelance driver firms could do their own background checks through an accredited agency.