City's taxi regulations should be less discriminatory, not more so 

click to enlarge ESSDRAS M SUAREZ/THE BOSTON GLOBE VIA GETTY IMAGES
  • Essdras M Suarez/The Boston Globe via Getty Images

Given the current plethora of cabs, car services and ridesharing apps, it could be argued that there has never been a better time to get around San Francisco. Technology has ushered in a new era of mobility, with rides available through numerous services with the wave of a hand or the tap of a few buttons on a smartphone. And that doesn't even include The City's eagerly awaited bike-sharing program.

But a bonanza for consumers does not necessarily translate to a bonanza for drivers. Increasingly, cabdrivers are subject to selectively enforced regulations that The City needs to work toward standardizing, not compounding.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency — which oversees not only Muni but all other ground transportation in The City, including parking, bicycling and pedestrian issues — regulates the taxicab industry. On Tuesday, the agency's board of directors voted to institute a new training course that taxi drivers would be required to take each year as part of the permit renewal process.

The agency pitched this free course as a way to provide The City's nearly 8,000 cabdrivers with information about new regulations and updated safety alerts about bikes, maneuvers and dangerous intersections. The agency also plans to provide customer service tips to give cabdrivers a leg up on competitors.

Some members of the taxi industry seem amenable to complying with this new requirement. But many drivers rightly view this as another layer of bureaucracy they must now endure as they compete with other modes of transportation that remain lightly regulated locally and statewide.

Everyone has encountered the occasional cabdriver who could use a few reminders about traffic safety or sharing the road with pedestrians, bicycles and other vehicles. But professional drivers don't have any monopoly on such behavior. Drivers of town cars and rideshare vehicles can also be discourteous or unsafe, particularly those motorists who can be seen driving distractedly with their eyes glued to the screens of their smartphones, looking for the pickup or drop-off spot for their next ride.

The services that turn town cars and ordinary automobiles into de facto taxicabs have sidestepped the occasionally onerous regulations that govern the taxicab industry. Regardless of which side one favors in this conflict, there can be no denying that these services have dodged rules that cabdrivers must comply with — including, now, this newly mandated hourlong class.

As more taxi alternatives enter the marketplace, cab companies and their drivers must compete with these new businesses on a playing field that is far from being level. The transit agency may be well-meaning in its regulations, but discrimination is discrimination, regardless of how well-intentioned it may be.

One can make equally good arguments about the need for more safety-related regulation of ridesharing services and the need for an overall reduction of regulation governing The City's taxi industry. Drivers of all vehicles for hire in The City should share a common set of insurance and safety requirements, yet the profusion of competition in this arena suggests that the regulation of taxi fares may be an outmoded idea.

Either way, the trend in regulation should move toward leveling the playing field — not tipping it.

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