Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Analysis Of A Situation: Taxis & The For-Hire Vehicles

Frankly I have been avoiding writing about the problematic situation involving the for-hire cars because at this point I would rather discuss anything but taxi and its related issues though given the nature of this blog it is clear a rational discussion must commence.  A decision Friday by the Seattle City Council to finance new Office of Consumer Affairs inspectors from general funds instead of raising fees says to me that I must insert myself into the ongoing dialogue before it is too late to add leavening to an already incendiary issue.  Though certainly not displeased that I and everyone else won't be paying $250.00 (up from $45.00 in 1987) to simply renew our for-hire driver licenses I am very concerned that a cash depleted City of Seattle is only forestalling the inevitable.  This most recent development occurred Friday when I was in San Francisco "avoiding" my taxi responsibilities though I did spend two hours on the telephone listening in on the commission meeting.  Effective lobbying by the Teamsters and the driver bloc servicing Sea-Tac Airport convinced the council that a new direction was necessary.  All this maneuvering appears to sidestep the compelling issue at hand, and that is just what should the taxi industry response be to the newly created "for-hire vehicle" industry?  Should they be embraced as equals, only another version of taxi?  Or instead, as many favor, harassed out of existence?  I believe we are reaching a juncture, a collision of two opposing forces.  The preference must be for a just and peaceful and equitable solution if one is possible.  Given the chaos created by the City of Seattle nothing short of a lawsuit directed at the City could be required though I for one am not recommending it. At least the Seattle City Council recognizes that a problem requiring remedy exists.  That is a small beginning to a long journey.

A short history of this saga is as follows, at least as much as I know of the narrative. If I am missing something, please tell me.  I will always admit that despite my 25 year long immersion in this taxi madness, I remain upon the periphery.  I don't see that changing.

It must have been about four years ago during a City Council hearing that both expanded taxi licenses and these odd animals called "for-hire" licenses were discussed, revealing that 200 or so of these never before known or used licenses were available for anyone interested.  In the ensuing proceedings it became clear that though a theoretic number of taxi licenses might one day be released, many in the audience were launched into action by these ersatz "taxi" licenses.  For many it seemed to be a legitimate option when none other existed.  Official encouragement only further enhanced interest.  Perhaps this was all about dissuading interest in real and actual taxi licenses as the City & County continued (and the practise remains) to issue for-hire driving licenses to individuals who hold no realistic possibility of ever owning a taxi.  Issuing the for-hire vehicle licenses instead answered a pent up demand for the genuine article, allowing the City & County to sidestep the issue. 

Thus began what we now see today, a new industry of 250 plus for-hire cars with no practicable business model mimicking the existent parallel taxi industry.  As Kipling said upon a different subject, East is East and West is West and Never Shall the Twain Meet.  NYC knows this story well, with the recent conflicts concerning the livery (car service) taxis. Unfortunately the release of these new licenses did little to satisfy those committed to them, suddenly evident that these new entities were a mirage, more confined to the active imagination than palpable reality.  After their initial investments these new business owners were shocked to discover that they had been conned into buying something that didn't quite exist, that without years of product investment there was scant opportunity to succeed.  Fees generated by these new licenses benefit and continue to increase City & County coffers which might have been the true incentive of this "shell game" from its very inception. With new mandates stating that the licensing agencies be self-supporting, this monetary incentive fueled the continuation of something benefiting the few while beleaguering the majority.  Similar to my reaction to much of the new art work at the San Francisco Modern Art Museum, it is not a pretty picture, abstraction taken to absurdity, making unsubstantiated claims to the naive.  As I have found all too frequently, the bureaucratic mind is not interested in accuracy, just what is waiting around the next taxation corner.

Meanwhile the new for-hire licensees suffered, not knowing what to do.  Though their response was neither legal nor appropriate, their desperation took over, prompting a decision that has brought us to the current conflict.  Designing their cars to mimic taxis they took to the city streets disregarding restrictions regarding the picking up of passengers directly minus prearranged appointments.  This decision originated from at least two logical percepts.  One, given that King County had no restrictions regarding street pick ups, the activity could be transferred to Seattle itself.  And the other was that the largest taxi market in the county, New York City, was planning, with the blessing of Mayor Bloomberg, to open the outer boroughs to the livery cars, giving them the unprecedented permission to directly pick up from the streets. Potentially the thought and hope locally was that if it was good enough for NYC, why can't it also occur in Seattle?   That the NYC plan remains on hold says much about local ambition.  Its implementation here then grows less likely.  And irritation and resentment from the taxi industry continues to build.  Other than shouting what can be done to sooth tempers and introduce civility and commonsense into the discussion?  My first suggestion is a truce agreed to under these potential conditions.

 Most truces mandate a return to original borders, in this case translating into a cessation of picking up upon the streets within Seattle's city limits. Though stopping this activity places a burden upon the for-hire operators, I suggest the City of Seattle responds in turn by immediately suspending all City of Seattle re-licensing fees related to their industry.  This would take some of the initial financial pressure off of the operators and transfer it to the party who caused this mess, the City of Seattle. I would also like the City of Seattle to reconsider their policy of fining the for-hire drivers.  A suspension of licenses might be a more effective response, eliminating the more egregious offenders.  As I see it, it is long past time that the City of Seattle takes clear and ultimate responsibility for the situation that they alone created and perhaps might even want  to apologize to everyone concerned.  Along with that gesture, the City of Seattle should then consider its next step.  One important question that must be answered is whether the for-hire vehicle concept is a viable business model.  That has never heretofore been addressed.  If the conclusion is that it isn't, then what direction should the City of Seattle take to satisfy the folks who have invested sometimes tens of thousands of dollars in Seattle's version of waterfront property located clearly in the middle of a miasmic swamp?  There are all those potential taxi licenses theoretically sitting there.  Could they be part of the final equation?

But if the City of Seattle decides that they are viable, then part of the solution could be broad financial assistance providing the guidance necessary to create a business model based upon the original premise, of a service that is dispatched or appointment-based.  It is also clear that like the local taxi industry, the for-hire business owners must be required to join an association eliminating the one car companies, understanding that the single operator is an erroneous and ultimately unsuccessful business model.  My premise is that if the for-hire industry is to flourish and grow, the City of Seattle can not keep treating it like an orphan child or even worse an odd version of indentured servant and begin providing real assistance and direction.  Much of what I am suggesting would ultimately be far cheaper than a class-action law suit from either industry.  In other words, real answers for real problems need to be found.  In "wishy-washy" Seattle that may be difficult to comprehend but the usual turning round and round in circles can not be condoned or seen as acceptable.  Again, acrimony serves little purpose, with nothing gained.  Dialogue and understanding will take all involved to where we need to go, and that is to a yet unknown resolution.  I invite all interested parties to join the conversation.  War only creates ruin.  Let us all instead search for peaceful resolution.  I don't see any other option.

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