Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Our World Is Forever Altered----Maybe!

Today, though no longer a member I attended a Special Meeting called by the Seattle-King County Taxi Commission occasioned by the attendance of Seattle City Council President Sally Clark.  The object of the meeting was to review and discuss the now infamous (at least from my perspective) Option 3 which the council is considering as a response to the Mundy/Cooper demand study and the ongoing controversy concerning alternate taxi-like services.  Ultimately the commission will be sending an advisory recommendation to the Seattle City Council.  Unfortunately only four of the sitting commission members showed up, failing to field a legal quorum.  Six members were absent along with the seventh position, my former seat, remaining unfilled.  One would think, given the urgency and importance of all this, that the full commission would have been present.  The four commissioners who did attend, Abebe, Manjit, Rafi and Joseph did an excellent job.  Speaking as the former chair, I was proud of them.  The commission, or least part of it, is maturing and taking form.  It was great to see.

Sally Clark gave a ten minute presentation, with an additional twenty minutes reserved for questions from the panel.  It was a different Sally Clark, commenting that the demand study wasn't perfect, presenting it more as a guiding document than a completely definitive statement.  Even saying that she appeared to agree with Mundy/Cooper that demand is up, at least for certain kinds of non-taxi transportation services, inferring that also translated into a more overall demand for taxi-like services.

When asked if the city council held the legal authority to include ride-share services in what was termed a taxi and for-hire and limousine (town car) study, Sally responded by saying she categorized ride-shares and for-hire vehicles as one and the same, thus providing necessary regulatory authority.  In what appeared to be a possible contradiction, Sally said toward the end of her appearance that she viewed ride-shares as "private car" services.  Given that for-hire cars are regulated by both the City of Seattle and King County and hold a requirement that the drivers hold a "For-Hire" license just like cab drivers, it seems that "private car" is the more correct definition. 

The next taxi city council hearing is scheduled for Friday December 13th.  What is telling is Sally said not to expect any final decisions until sometime in January or February or even March 2014.  This might mean there will be plenty of time for negotiation.

The most important moment of the meeting occurred when the current Chair Manjit asked Sally what she knew about an incriminating email emanating from somewhere in the Seattle City Council chambers requesting that Seattle's enforcement arm, the Office of Consumer Affairs, defer from going legally after the ride-share services.  Sally was shocked at the suggestion, saying no one would ever make that kind of request.  All I can say is that after the meeting was over I saw evidence appearing to corroborate that charge.  If it does turn out to be true, then, as the title implies, our taxi world is forever altered, backing up my contention that the City of Seattle has failed to protect us from predatory practices.  Stay tuned is what I advise.  The narrative it appears is about to become very interesting.

Editorial Note:  Given my too usual post-taxi haze, two errors were missed but are now corrected.  I do my best to overcome taxi fatigue but at times it comes out the victor.  Have I ever implied that taxi driving is in any manner healthy?  Believe me it isn't.  It is a physical and mental grind.  And as I am about three weeks shy of my 60th birthday it is not getting any easier.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Where Is The Demand While Sitting On My Hands With Nothing To Do?

Paramount perhaps beyond all other considerations concerning the addition of new taxi licenses and potential accommodation toward the for-hire vehicle and ride-share industries is the crucial question of passenger demand. As Seattle's population grows there is a perception that more people are taking taxis.  Ray Mundy and James Cooper in their demand study implied that is true.  But beyond limited peak periods during Friday and Saturday nights and football game days, is there a sustained increase and demand for taxis and related services? 

Your answer might be similar to mine if like me you had been driving a Seattle cab these past few weekends.  You would know that despite your best efforts you couldn't find a passenger.  That at times desperation filled your mind, wondering just when if ever again would you find a paying customer?

I have a personal reputation of always finding the taxi fish.  If I am having difficulty finding business then it probably means there isn't any, at least not the kind of demand warranting the dramatic increase of taxi and quasi-taxi services currently under consideration.  Flooding the market with transportation companies doesn't mean magically there will be a corresponding increase in the customer-base.  I would celebrate if that was true, wishing there were more than enough customers for everyone.  Evidence unfortunately appears to say otherwise. 

Caution then is the byword.  Swinging the regulatory doors wide open is probably suicidal.  Nothing good is gained if everyone is fated to earning $50.00 a day.  Currently the taxi industry remains viable.  Decisions made during the next two or three coming months must be well thought out and comprehensive, based upon reality not emotion.   To do otherwise would be both unwise and criminal.  I request that we proceed forward slowly.  Not only must we seek the right answer, all conclusions must be correct.  Families and individual futures are reliant upon this.  Shall we never forget that for all concerned!

First Fare of the Weekend

One always hopes that a great first fare is a harbinger of great things to come.  This Saturday I had the unlikely destination of Everett from a South Park Mexican restaurant at 3:45 AM in the morning.  It was like being back in Puebla because she only spoke Spanish.  If only each fare was a $90.00 fare.  I could get used to that, lighting imaginary cigars with real twenty dollar bills!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Regulatory Protection? Regulatory Failure!

As is often said, distance creates clarity and my nearly twelve days in Mexico City and Puebla assisted new perspectives upon a known subject.  It is not an exaggeration to state that the next two to three months will potentially imprint the local Seattle and King County taxi industry for years if not decades to come. Any and all incorrect addressing of our current and present issues will be disastrous. Our course then must be correctly tacked or suddenly we will find ourselves wrecked and floundering upon a reef of our own creation, permanently stranded and forever at the mercy of oncoming tides.  We do not want this to happen.

Paramount above everything else is understanding how we got here.  Nothing here is accidental, instead the momentum of years bringing us to where we are.  Briefly then I will outline a regulatory history dysfunctional and contradictory.  The regulators and administrators assigned and elected to protect us have simply failed.  Worse they have at times operated completely contrary to our best interests, making misinformed decisions weakening and compromising our ability to grow and prosper.  They are about to do this again.  It would be foolhardy to allow them to think that what they have done and plan on doing is in anyway acceptable. 

Beware of  hidden agendas disguised as constructive dialogue and cooperation.  I remind everyone about the Munich Agreement of 1938 when Great Britain, France and Italy agreed to Germany's annexation of Western Czechoslovakia, all in an effort to avoid war.  Remember how that worked out?  It was a complete miscalculation by Neville Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier.  We in the taxi industry cannot be similarly naive.

History shows us that Seattle and King County first creates a problem, then perpetuates the problem, and finally, in a blaze of bureaucratic glory, assigns the blame to the victimized parties themselves.  We cannot let this kind of history to repeat itself, drinking poison offered as healing balm. That my friends is suicidal. 

I want to remind everyone of a basic psychological premise.  Foolishness, instead of being a lack of fundamental wisdom as usually portrayed, is in reality a series of active choices.  You are deciding to be foolish when the option not to be can be easily taken.  You don't have to be dumb.  Instead you are deciding to be.   I unfortunately see the perilous direction the discussion is taking.  I suggest we do otherwise.

As stated in my last posting, the situation concerning the for-hire vehicles and the lack of regulatory response toward the ride-share services is solely self-created by Seattle and King County itself.  The City did not HAVE TO RELEASE the for-hire licenses.  The City did not HAVE TO ALLOW unregulated services like Lyft, Sidecar and Uber-X to operate.  All of this has been completely voluntary, City regulators and administrators making INTENTIONAL choices contrary to our best interests.

I want everyone to understand a very basic premise.  Since the taxi industry is a regulated industry which is required to pay fees and obtain licenses, we are both under the scrutiny and the protection of City and County agencies.  It is clear that we are NOT being PROTECTED by the very agencies created to manage and oversee our interests.  Too often instead they have acted in direct opposition to our needs and wants.  This should not and can not continue.

Take the training of new drivers.  They make the new drivers pay fees and take a required training course.  And what do the new drivers receive for their time and money?   A badly structured program leaving them ill-prepared for what they are being licensed to do.  Making it worse is that they then blame the new drivers and the overall taxi industry for the City & County's own sanctioned incompetence.  An example from Saturday night spells out the prevailing reality.

A couple from Alaska complained to me that during their three previous taxi rides earlier that evening, that

1) the driver was not familiar with their destination and how to get there, and

2) that THEY themselves had to research the destination address, and

3) then and only then did the driver insert the destination address into his GPS device and take them to where they needed to go.

In short, all three drivers were clueless, left totally unprepared BY THE CITY & COUNTY TRAINING.  This clearly is just one example of the kind of regulatory failure perpetuated by the City & County.  And who gets the blame?  Why of course the victimized drivers and the industry in general.  The passengers from Alaska even wondered if I knew where the Alexis Hotel is.  Somewhere on planet Mars I think, just a few blocks west from our City Hall, where space aliens makes decisions for us unsuspecting humans.

In summation, the correct party must be held responsible for the mess we are facing.  All fingers point to the City of Seattle and King County.  What we in the industry can not do is in anyway cooperate in what is a bureaucratic charade.  We can not allow them to hold us responsible for problems created solely by them.  The Seattle City Council will do this if we allow them to.  We must communicate that we will not be holding hands and walking down their prescribed path.  Their path leads only to a precipitous cliff and we will fall to our deaths.  It is beyond time to say No, we will not be agreeing to anything but the elimination of the for-hire and ride-share services.  We will also require that we are compensated for our losses. 

And the reason why?  Because the City & County regulators failed to protect the taxi industry.  And while criticizing and punishing us, they have failed to acknowledge their own culpability.  This is not acceptable.  And my question to everyone is, how can it be?

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Einsteinium: Synthetic Reality

Buenos dias from Mexico City, my last full day in Mexico.  Tomorrow I fly first to Houston then on to Seattle.  My bus ride from Puelba to Mexico City actually offered refreshments similar to an airline.  Entering the bus the passengers had an array of snacks and beverages to chose from.  Amazing.  My Puebla taxi ride to the bus station was great.  By that point I knew parts of the city and correct routes and he went essentially the way I would have taken.  The driver, an older gentleman of one year total experience, became excited when I identified myself as "taxi driver USA Seattle, State of Washington."  He even got more excited when I gave him two American dollars as his tip, translating to 26 pesos. Money of course is what makes those taxi wheels spin.

 I will miss Puebla.  If you get down that way check out the Bibioteca Palafoxiana and its 50,000 rare books.  You will also want to see the Iglesia de Santo Domingo de Guzman and its side chapel, the Capilla del Rosario.  I have been to many Roman Catholic countries and visited many churches and cathedrals but if you need to see only one, come down to Puebla and stare up at the amazing ceilings.

Einsteinium, named after Albert Einstein, is a synthetic radioactive element, symbol Es and listed 99 on the Periodic Table of the Elements.  It only occurs after a thermonuclear explosion, which makes it synthetic not primary.  Other than possibly the kind of explosions occurring upon the face of our friendly star, the sun, you do not want nuclear explosions.  They are deadly, and hence creating a synthetic and unnatural reality.

 I am using the einsteinium analogy to express a potent point.  All that has been occurring the past four years concerning the Seattle & King County taxi industry is artificial and synthetic, a manifestation, a reality created solely by decisions that should NEVER have been made but moreover, can NEVER be made if your goal is the overall health and vitality of an industry.

When, primarily on Mr. Leisy's initiative, the City of Seattle encouraged the purchase of that synthetic taxi, the for-hire vehicle, it became an unnecessary element of the industry, something that should not exist, at least in Seattle. In NYC's outer boroughs like Queens they might be necessary but not here.  And something to remember, Seattle is a city of 600,000 thousand, not ten million.

Instead of answering the call for more legitimate taxi licenses to be released, they created an alternate and dysfunctional reality victimizing both the taxi industry and the desperate individuals who became for-hire owners.  We all now know the story of how the for-hire owners and drivers are operating illegally in the city.  It is a mess and situation that can not be tolerated.  The new Murray administration must act quickly to put this damaging genie back into its bottle.

The so-called ride-share services are another example of synthetic reality.  Using and utilizing new technology is one thing but allowing an entire new range of unregulated synthetic taxi services to operate under the guise of new technology makes little sense.  Perhaps requiring that the taxi industry embrace new technologies similar to what is happening in NYC does make sense, making the service more passenger and customer friendly.  But saying that new technology justifies the entry of Lyft, Uber-X etc makes no sense.  It is an incorrect response to our transportation model.

Albert Einstein, a very smart man, later voiced regret for having helped create the age of atom bombs.  It is time for the local Seattle and King County administrators and regulators to admit their fatal errors and retract their very bad decisions.  It is past the time they begin acknowledging their mistakes and start repairing the damage, that THEY THEMSELVES created.  NO ONE else is responsible.  Any other course must be seen as what it is, a declaration of war upon the taxi industry.  That is not, and will never be, acceptable.  We in the industry require a responsive regulatory environment.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Ola From Puebla, Mexico: The Bells Are Ringing!

The one very clanging plus one gets from visiting an overtly Roman Catholic country are the cacophony of church bells.  Two lines from Edgar Allen Poe's "The Bells":

                                  Bells, bells, bells----
                                  To the rhyming and chiming of the bells!

Reminds me when I was in Barcelona, Spain in 1991 and my hotel was directly adjacent  to a church.  All those glorious bells!

Yes sitting in my Puebla hotel room I have the bells pleasantly intruding upon my work space.  Outside the sun is bright and warm.

My taxi ride in from the bus station was efficient, my driver once working in a Chicago restaurant kitchen, and now back in Puebla, taking me directly to my hotel.  You should have seen the long curving line of  waiting cabs.  I would for one not be so cheerful.  My tip matched 75 percent of the fare.  Taxi, especially the waiting, can be grueling. And that is what I want to briefly touch upon, on just hard in reality taxi can be and is. As I have said, the money can be and is good but the cost in sweat and blood and tears can be high.

An early Sunday morning incident nearly meant I would now be sitting in Harborview if not a morgue awaiting burial instead of my rustic hotel room.  Having picked up in Chinatown I was crossing 6th and Cherry east-bound when a driver in a Toyota ran the light south-bound on 6th while coming off the freeway at 40-50 miles per hour, aiming directly for my door.  Depending, he might have killed me but as I have been driving a car since I was twelve, I instantly hit the brake and dodged the lethal Toyota, saving me and my four passengers from much misery.  The Toyota did stop about 30 feet past the light but what was there to say?   He made a serious error and I was able to repair it.  I just kept going to my destination, glad we were all safe, including the fool in the Toyota.

This is the reality I face and the reality the two Mexican cabbies I have rode with face daily.   It is a rewarding but dangerous profession.  Would you snobs out there like my two drivers better because they were both wearing ties?  I am sick of the current diminishing and insulting of a great and courageous group of professionals.  It is time to hug not mug your favorite cabbie!  Taxi is a bull fight and the cabbie the brave matador.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Option Three: Mere Folly?

Greetings from Mexico City.  After finishing the draft of my new book, "To Age 13" in just over nine months I have rewarded myself with a more or less "working" vacation, tomorrow heading to Puebla, Mexico's fourth largest city to concentrate on the edit for seven solid days, along with some breaks to see the city.

My taxi ride in from the Mexico City airport was great, like myself, a twenty-five year veteran of the taxi roads taking me directly to my somewhat obscure Hotel Panorama.  That earned him a $5.00 tip, making it 65 Mexican pesos.  As I keep saying, regardless of the city or country, a professional cabbie makes the difference between a good or bad ride.  You do not want amateurs plying Mexico City's crazy streets!  Not a good idea.

The more I observe what is happening on Seattle's streets the more I understand just how absurd and untenable the situation has become, post-game Seahawk games having more limos and for-hire vehicles out there working than taxis.  That is why I think the following quote taken from the novel "On the Edge of Reason" by the Croatian writer Miroslav Krleza (1893-1981) makes complete sense:

"Folly wears a top hat on its highly learned head, and this top-hatted folly is a form I have studied fairly closely."

What Krleza is reacting to and describing is post-Habsburg Empire Yugoslavia,  Habsburg Hungary being where three of my grandparents fled from.  Now of course we are in 21st Century Seattle but funny how new "royalists" keep appearing, making everything the same as if a hundred years passing has changed nothing whatsoever.   That the City Council thinks that their "Option Three" is based on some kind of tangible reality is the type of "top-hatted folly" Krleza is writing about.

By allowing the limos and for-hire cars to steal our fares without thinking there will be a strong response is complete folly by everyone elected and assigned and appointed to protect us.  And to continue to allow these same bad actors to steal from local citizens is again total folly.  Yes, they are stealing from the passengers themselves because of this basic point.  Because all of the transactions are unauthorized and illegal it means that no payment can be requested.  I see this folly potentially leading to two class-action suits.

One is obvious, with the City paying the cabbies millions in lost revenue.  The other class-action suit will be on behalf of all of those Seattle and King County residents plus all those unsuspecting out-of-town visitors who were robbed by the limo and for-hire drivers.  And for the moment I will only mention in passing the folly of allowing unregulated ride-share drivers to pick up local residents in un-inspected cars, perhaps grounds for a third class-action suit. 

Adding to the folly is that we in the local taxi industry have been telling all of the Seattle regulators for over three years that none of this is acceptable.  And what has been their response?  "Top-hatted," upper-middle class folly.  What a world!