When the BizTimes reported that taxi industry leaders were gearing up to sue UberX, Lyft, and Sidecar, it didn't get a lot of support on my Facebook feed. I get it -- the cab companies in SF aren't anyone's favorite consumer-service outfits. But this is serious stuff, and a lawsuit could shine some light on the downside of these ride-sharing startups.
You've all heard my rant before: Taxis are, and should be, part of the city's public transportation infrastructure. They are, and should be, tightly regulated. You want to drive a cab, and pick up strangers (many of whom may not know the language very well, and certainly don't know San Francisco streets very well) and take them places? First there's a criminal background check, then there's a mandatory training course, and if you screw up, you lose your permit. You are required by law to pick people up regardless of race or age; if a senior citizen needs a ride from the hospital to here public housing unit in the Bayview, you can't refuse her.
There are limits to the number of taxis on the streets. Those limits may be too low, but if you let just anyone drive a cab without a permit or controls, none of the drivers can make enough money to survive, so the quality of drivers goes down.
(That's my bias, by the way: I am not an ally or supporter of everyone in the industry, but I am on the side of the working drivers.)
The new folks, who are geared toward younger, better-off people with smartphones, don't have to follow the same rules. That's what gets me -- not that someone has found a better way to dispatch a taxi, but that companies that don't have the same regulatory requirements because they've created a loophole that nobody can seriously believe is real (the fares are called "donations" for a "shared ride") are competing unfairly with companies that have to follow (reasonable) city rules.
I don't know what the lawsuit will look like in the end. I do know that it could force the private startups to come clean about every detail of their business practices (including the fact that they would never be able to raise venture capital if fares were really voluntary donations and the exact status of the insurance the drivers and the companies carry).
The city let the state set the regs for these new types of services. That was a mistake; City Hall needs to treat all cab companies alike, under one set of requirements. In the meantime, I can see some fireworks here -- and a fascinating discussion of the legalities of the new "sharing economy."