On June 16, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray announced that a stakeholders group had agreed to lift restrictions on the growth of rideshare companies. In exchange, companies like Lyft and Uber would meet the same safety and insurance requirements as taxi drivers.
But taxi drivers say they still face many regulatory barriers to an even playing field. And competition will now become even more intense.
To understand where taxi drivers are coming from, consider the case of Fentahun Amare. In 2007, Amare was cited for a dress code violation because he wore jeans to pick up a customer. He still has the citation, where an inspector described his violation: “Out of uniform, wearing blue jeans.”
Amare was a driver for a wheelchair-accessible taxi. At the time, he said he was more focused on his medically fragile client. He paid the ticket, $35. It sounds trivial, but it had big consequences. Amare lost points on his record, and because his score was lower, the other drivers in his group excluded him from a rare chance for a permanent taxi license in 2010.
Amare’s son Amanuel says the episode was hard on their whole family.
“After four years his license is taken away because of certain regulations that taxicab drivers have to follow and not necessarily everyone else has to follow?” he said.
By “everyone else,” he meant the new rideshare companies like Lyft and UberX. Drivers for those companies use their personal cars and are summoned through a smartphone app. These services have been growing fast in Seattle with no city or county regulations. Michael Cambern is a driver with UberX – he said that opportunity came along at a crucial time for him.
He estimates he’s making more than $20 an hour. For him, Uber started as a part-time job “and after two days went full time because I liked the company so much. Now I’m making a really good living. It turned out to be a really positive change in my life working for Uber,” he said.
Cambern said he is relieved that Seattle’s latest proposal does away with any caps on the numbers of rideshare drivers.
The Seattle City Council tried to cap the number of drivers at 150 at a time per company, although those regulations are now on hold. Cambern frequently takes customers from the Eastside to Seattle, and he didn’t want to have to take himself off the system and drive back with an empty car.
“I think there’s enough business for all of us out there. But I think it’s going to up the game for everybody,” he said.
Indeed, Uber and flat-rate companies have all had recent fare reductions as they compete for customers. Now that caps seem to be off the table in Seattle, Cambern said it will be up to the rideshare companies themselves to regulate the number of drivers so everyone can make a living. “Knowing the management and how they run this business, I’m sure they’re keeping a close eye on how many are in certain areas and whether it does get oversaturated or not,” he said. “If I couldn’t make a living doing this, I wouldn’t do it, and I’m a pretty highly rated driver.”
'Ubered' To The Scene
On a recent Saturday night, at Broadway and Pike streets on Capitol Hill, the for-hire market in Seattle was on full display – taxis and flat-rate cabs are everywhere, but lots of people say they “ubered” to the scene.
Lauren Reed moved to Seattle from Austin, Texas. She said taking UberX to work every day costs just a couple dollars more than taking the bus. Meanwhile the city of Austin has declared the services illegal and issued tickets. Reed said it’s harder to get around when she visits there, and she’s frustrated by the crackdown.
“I really appreciate Uber and Lyft; it’s helped me out a lot,” she said. “And I think that cities who are against it really should give it a trial run, like Austin, Texas, is a city that needs something like that.”
“Surge” pricing was in effect on this Saturday night – the rideshare services cost more when there’s more demand. That pricing puts some people off, like Reed’s friend Carmen Peel.
“On New Year’s at 2 a.m. they raised their rates, so it was like hella expensive to take a cab and I don’t have that kind of money,” she said.
Peel’s preferred mode of transportation is a flat-rate cab. She’s a hairdresser, and she likes to pay cash, something you can’t do with a rideshare. Taxi drivers are trying to serve multiple constituencies – they’re required to take cash, and they can’t refuse service to anyone. But they’re also developing smartphone apps like Flywheel and the soon-to-be-released “My Taxi” to better compete with rideshares.
After the blue jeans incident, Fentahun Amare is back to leasing a Yellow Cab. He estimated that he’s making less than $10 an hour. He doesn’t understand why enforcers took action against his jeans and yet have done nothing against thousands of illegal rideshare drivers.
“Why aren’t they fair? Why the city is not fair and treat everybody equal?” he said.
Some of those regulations, like dress codes, would be eliminated under the latest proposal. And the supply of taxis will increase 30 percent with 200 new licenses. The mayor’s agreement now goes to the City Council. But rideshare companies are also gathering signatures to enact their own regulations with a ballot measure, Initiative 120, if the council doesn’t pass the mayor’s proposal.