So the biggest cab company in San Francisco has gone bankrupt. Conventional wisdom says Uber and its little friend Lyft are responsible. In this case, conventional wisdom is incorrect. The city of San Francisco is responsible for the bankruptcy of Yellow Cab.
Regardless of their voluminous claims of social justice, Uber and Lyft are simply businesses going about making a buck. They get away with what they can. In recent years, the people of San Francisco have seen a raft of companies like this; indemnifying themselves under the banner of the “sharing economy.” Our political establishment has been quick to embrace almost all of them. Mayor Ed Lee has publicly endorsed Uber, Lyft and the now-defunct SideCar.
Why is The City promoting private businesses? This is not the proper role of government. What they should be doing is upholding the law. Operating a public passenger vehicle for hire without a taxicab license in the city of San Francisco is illegal.
Many believe Uber and Lyft are legal because the California Public Utilities Commission gave them a mandate and the state legislature passed a bill. The truth is that neither of these state bodies have jurisdiction. Taxicabs (a.k.a. public passenger vehicles for hire) have always been regulated locally. Both the bill and the mandate are invalid.
During the CPUC hearings, which resulted in Uber and Lyft’s mandate, the commission’s position was that the hearings were being held in order to find a way to allow these businesses to legally operate public passenger vehicles for hire. The CPUC had suddenly and internally decided to expand their jurisdiction to become a statewide taxicab regulator. A CPUC employee from their Policy and Planning Department named Marzia Zafar was championing the issue. She was backed up by the now-disgraced CPUC commissioner Michael Peavey.
Both the CPUC mandate and the state law required a nullification of local public passenger vehicle for hire laws. Although traditional taxicabs were still burdened with the full weight of local regulations as they should be, Uber, Lyft and the rest of the Transportation Network Companies were left to operate with relative impunity. Relative impunity because, even though a mandate and a law had been passed, to this day, there is not adequate funding or organization for the enforcement of either.
So what was behind this big, coordinated political push to legitimize the TNCs? Why would the city of San Francisco relinquish control of its taxicab industry, missing out on millions of dollars in revenue from medallion sales, while legally compromising themselves.
Dare I suggest political corruption?
Many will suggest — concurrent with Uber’s propaganda — that the taxicab industry brought this upon themselves. People often say that, due to decades of poor service, the environment was ripe for the TNCs. The truth of the matter is that, again, The City is responsible.
Government creates the reality. The heavily regulated taxicab industry is only a reflection of city policy. The taxicab companies simply comply with laws and city policies. The City can make its cab industry into anything it wants. Good stewardship results in a proficient industry; poor stewardship results in a dysfunctional industry. In this case, the stewardship is poor; therefore, we have experienced a dysfunctional cab industry.
The classic example of this is The City’s historical policies of not putting enough cabs on the street. As they should, The City has long since controlled the number of San Francisco taxicabs. At least since the previous bankruptcy of Yellow Cab in 1978, the biggest problem for passengers has been a lack of taxicabs. During peak periods — before the TNCs — San Franciscans were forced to suffer. Even though for decades many citizens, the Golden Gate Restaurant Association, big taxicab companies and many others pleaded with The City for more cabs, The City just sat on their hands and did nothing. There are many other examples pertaining to training and enforcement.
At this point, many may be asking: Why taxicabs? And the answer is because taxicabs embody best practices.
Today’s taxicabs are the way they are because of the historical evolution of law and policy pertaining to public passenger vehicles for hire. This evolution has been going on for centuries. When the standards determined by this evolution are compromised, people experience a reduction in their quality of life. Among many other glaring discrepancies, Uber has not proven to the public that they have adequate insurance. Uber and Lyft are profiting at the expense of our quality of life. San Franciscans deserve better.
The City should designate an official city of San Francisco taxicab dispatch smartphone application and put on the street an adequate number of taxicabs. If combined with better training and enforcement, we can have some of the best taxicab service in the world.
Peter A. Kirby is a cab driver in San Francisco.
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