Thursday, December 22, 2016

Did Everything Go As Planned?---A Quick Year-End Glance At The Taxi Year 2016

Assuming there will be no startling revelations during these last remaining nine days in this rapidly waning year, I will attempt to review much of importance occurring in 2016.  What promises had been made and subsequently broken; which dreams punctured and deflated?  Or is it easy to say that, as in previous years, the "taxi baby has been tossed out with the bath water?"  Early 16th Century German proverbs aside, it has been true that over the past few years, local taxi interests have been swept into a dusty corner where they remained ignored and unnoticed.  What about this past year 2016, can the same be said to be true?  Or have new and different attitudes prevailed, repairing the damage and associated despair?

Without question the year's two biggest events was the Eastside-for Hire changeover at Sea-Tac International Airport and the ongoing appeasement aimed at Uber.   What both developments quickly translate to is a further loss of taxi market and income, resulting in an overall financial hardship taking years to recoup, if when, if ever.

While the issuance of new taxi medallions should be considered an ultimate positive, too little and too late must be the final assessment, when sometime around 2008 three hundred or more cabs could have been added.  If that happened, more than likely the transportation phenomenon that is the local flat-rate for-hire industry would not exist, and the threat represented by Uber/Lyft might have been largely militated.

Mistakes made by City of Seattle and King County taxi regulators and administrators over the past eight years bring us up to where we are now, history coloring our current day to day operations. What will be most helpful in 2017 is for all of in the local taxi industry to recognize our present reality and both create and grasp all available opportunities. They exist, with only depression and our ever-present dysfunction preventing us from making some gains this upcoming year, however small they might seem, going forward always preferable to the opposite direction. .

When the Port of Seattle awarded Eastside-for-Hire the Sea-Tac new outbound service contract, they, intentionally or not compounded Seattle's original administrational  error of one, writing into existence the legal conception of flat-rate for-hire vehicles; and two, releasing into the local transportation sector over 250 City of Seattle flat-rate licenses or medallions, with King County issuing unlimited licenses minus any viable business options and plans. While nonsensical, this is what occurs when an administrative bureaucracy, managed by regulators having no prior experience in a given field are handed the keys and told you are now in charge, do what you will minus consequences.  And when mistakes are made, all questions concerning accountability are either  ignored, or worse, assigned bogus justifications, compounding error after error into what becomes an opaque, unresponsive wall

All this of course I've addressed previously but what it meant is that to survive, Eastside and other flat-rate companies essentially had no other option but to operate illegally within Seattle's city limits, providing some solvency until approximately  3 years later they were finally given legal legitimacy by Seattle and KC. But still, notwithstanding those actions, the collective flat-rate industry remains legally liable, and subject to violations, fines and compensatory damages from that roughly three-year period, given that neither amnesty or exemptions were granted (or for that matter, could be granted by legal authorities).  And amazingly, even knowing Eastside's history, the Port of Seattle still thought it prudent (and wise?) to award Eastside-for-Hire the five-year outbound contract, the ramifications of which still reverberate, clearly harming the over 230 independent taxi drivers then operating within the Yellow Cab Taxi Association service umbrella, Sea-Tac's previous outbound service provider.

What makes all of this the more confounding is that Eastside itself did not have within its initial control any metered taxis, meaning it would first have to negotiate with the very operators it had displaced.  In other words, the Port of Seattle awarded its outbound contract to a company it knew wasn't prepared to begin operations until it finalized agreements with the same supplanted cabbies. Putting it another way, the Port of Seattle made Eastside the winner, telling the losing cabbies you had no choice but to join your adversaries in a joint, cooperative effort.  I suggest everyone grab a dictionary and look up definitions for empathy and see if that applies to the Port's collective actions.

Making all of this even worse, the Port of Seattle knew that Eastside did not have an operational dispatch system for the now 405 taxis now signed up to replace the smaller Yellow cab contingent.  Yes, that correct, Eastside signed up nearly 180 more cabs to operate a now smaller market share due official Uber and Lyft availability at Sea-Tac.  Those additional cabs display the real desperation felt by many taxi medallion owners in Seattle and King County.  High operational costs and fewer drivers willing to cover shifts are forcing owners into a corner, making acceptable what was once clearly unacceptable.

As noted in previous posts, Uber and Lyft has gained nearly 50 percent of once was a more or less 90 percent exclusive taxi market share.  So the math here is further skewered against the taxi operators, with the 405 cabs divided into A, B & C sections, limiting their overall access to Sea-Tac to twenty days out of a given month, which is why the new E-Cab operators can be now seen languishing upon Seattle hotel stands, trying to make up for loss revenue. One E-Cab driver told me that their color scheme was confusing to consumers, many not realizing they were actual taxis.

Oh, and on top of paying $7.00 per Sea-Tac pickup (rising to $9.00 at contact's end)  regardless of ride distance, they are now paying Eastside $155.00 for an almost nonexistent dispatch.  A close colleague and friend of mine currently assisting Eastside has assured me that by this January, meaning a mere nine days from now, all 405 cabbies will have an revenue equal to last January.

While a laudable goal, I personally will be amazed if it is reached, something within the imagination of Lewis Carroll.   But if it isn't, there is only one party to blame and that is the Port of Seattle and no one else as it was glaringly obvious to anyone paying attention that Eastside would be hard put to create an up-and-running taxi company literally out of thin air.  That the Port of Seattle did this says everything that needs to be said about the Port CEO, the Port Commission and its overall management of outbound taxi services, all this, making cabbies pay $7.00 per outbound trip and the official opening of their direct competitors (Uber & Lyft) to Sea-Tac accessibility: that revenue stream is their only concern, and how it affects all the independent operators is purely incidental.

The Port of Seattle will deny this, and a few months ago I received a Port email verifying their concern but the fruit is in the taxi pudding, with the only question remaining is how can this situation continue without all the cabbies going completely broke?    Even with an impressive improvement from Eastside dispatch services, there still remains one very inescapable fact: that the overall market transportation of taxi-like services remains too small to sustain everyone.  That is the truth, with everyone one now fighting for a very reduced slice of operational pie.  To believe otherwise is to believe in a real and breathing Santa Claus coming down your chimney every hour with yet another fare to Lynnwood or Everett or Olympia.  Hey cabbies! this Christmas you ain't getting no sweet kiss beneath the mistletoe but instead a big slap in the face, reddening your nose just like Rudolf, your very favorite Uber reindeer!

Thus summarizing this nearly past year of 2016, I must say all promises concerning business equity have not been met, and grand dreams of renewed profits have been flushed down the toilet.  From the regulators, the best I see from them is a "wait and see" approach, hopefully understanding their embrace of Uber in particular has been wholly unsuccessful, and that holding Uber accountable is the only way to protect the transportation consumer.  It is past time that Uber accidents both locally and nationally are made public, along with consumer complaints.  That the City of Seattle and King County and the Port of Seattle continue to coddle Uber is something that cannot be condoned.  And as the recent experience in San Francisco shows, with Uber refusing to cooperate with the City of San Francisco and the State of California over required permits for self-operating cars, Uber continues to believe (and act) like it is above the law.

When will bureaucrats finally recognize the animal they are dealing with?  How much evidence do they need before they act in the consumer interest?  Currently in the Seattle Times newspaper, Uber is running full page ads against proposed unionization rules put forward by the Seattle City Council, not wanting the City of Seattle to recognize the reality that the majority of Seattle's Uber drivers are not the mythological part-time grandma of Uber promotion but hardworking driver professionals working 50-60 hours a week.

Will 2017 be the year that local administrators and regulators recognize functional reality as it truly is, minus rhetoric and wishful thinking?  One can only hope that they will all find common sense in their packages sitting beneath the Christmas trees.  Wouldn't that make, as the late Burl Ives sang, for a "Holly, Jolly Christmas" and of course for a Happy upcoming New Year!

Sunday Birthday Boy

While I'd rather not, I don't mind working on my birthday but one does hope to have  a little business sweetening the day but this past Sunday the outlook was indeed grim.  Coming toward evening I had rolled only $210.00, resigning myself to the day being a complete "bust" when in succession the fare dam burst and money rained upon my disbelieving head.

After Chinese at the Honey Court (and given an unpicked up call-in order by Shelly, my favorite waitress)  I headed up to West Seattle to gas up the cab but being offered a fare I accepted and off we went to Magnolia and thirty-three dollars.  Gassing up there and heading back to my personal car I was again offered a fare, this time at the Greyhound where a stranded Metro bus driver took me to Renton and another forty dollars including tip.  As all us cabbies know, we never truly know what is going to happen next so thank you "taxi universe" for remembering my birthday, a bright red bow tying up the day, singing me one last birthday greeting.

1 comment:

  1. Joe, when you say you rolled only $210.00, is that net or gross? Great blog, by the way.