The Houston Chronicle reports that the City Council has begun taking the steps towards allowing Uber –the decentralized private driver company– to enter the market here in town. The Council shared a study on the continued feasibility of the regulations in place over the taxi industry. Specifically, some of the regulations affecting Uber –which is treated like a limo service– were recommended for the chopping block, specifically those pertaining to minimum fees and waiting periods before rides.
I called Larry Green’s office –the Chair of the Council Transportation Committee– but his Chief of Staff refused to comment. Likewise, I received no comment from the Committee’s Vice-Chair (Jack Christie), Uber or Yellow Cab. Accordingly, I think it is best to tell this story from the beginning.
Taxis are treated like a public utility in Houston, as in most cities. This means that typical contentions about capitalism and the free market may be ignored. It also means there are countless byzantine regulations over the taxis, although most are actually both logical and needed. As a result of these realities, not only is there very little wiggle room as to how a Taxi company may distinguish itself from others, most are actually aligned under a conglomeration known as the Greater Houston Transportation Company.
Make no mistake, this is not a fight between David and Goliath. Uber is not the dark horse, the underdog or the oppressed small business. Uber is the bandit. There are no barriers to entry in the Taxi industry, although its heavy regulation may make it an unappealing sector to make business in. But with Uber, or other ridesharing apps such as Lyft, truly wish to enter the market, they should play be the same rules.
As Brains & Eggs has noted, Uber has a history of openly flaunting regulations or rules when they don’t get their way, then accusing the law enforcers of some sort of favoritism or bullying. Meanwhile, when things do go wrong, they will be the last to ever take responsibility. You see, Uber prides itself on not being a transportation company, per se, but rather a technology app that simply provides a common software to a bunch of independent contractors.
The regulations Uber finds so tedious are primarily those that heavily regulate employment of drivers and provide for fixed fares. Uber wants neither of these to apply for them, ostensibly because of the aforementioned regulation flaunting. They have a history of insufficiently regulated drivers, sometimes even with criminal histories. Perhaps most importantly, Uber has a history of what hiking fares at inopportune times, which should be described for what it is…price gouging. They call this “surge pricing,” which means, be it a holiday, major event or natural disaster, they significantly raise their prices. The pernicious other side of deregulated, free market pricing is that sometimes the market screws you over, so to speak.
The Washington City Paper recently coined the term “Ubertarian,” as those otherwise left of center individuals who bemoan all government regulations if it dare affect their daily lives. Indeed, Uber is the best example of this phenomenon, with so many otherwise liberal people casting aversions on the inefficiency of this public utility. In my opinion, the idea of taxis being a public utility is a fairly well established one, which means it will not always be the most convenient or the cheapest form of travel.
However, contrary to public belief, the taxi industry is not mainly dependent upon intoxicated yuppies finding their ways home from the bar. Rather, its biggest customers are some of the poorer members of society who use taxis for invaluable tasks such as grocery shopping. This is one of the reasons to heavily regulated pricing is so important. We should not jeopardize that because Uber does not want to play by the same rules.
Off the Kuff has more (from a very different point of view).