UberX and Lyft drivers can't legally pick up fares from Sea-Tac.
That much sucks for drivers, because they're able to give people rides to the airport. If they pick up a fare on the way back, that's one of the best-paying trips in the city. Otherwise, they have to head back to the city with an empty car.
But while Uber and Lyft have been talking to the port for nearly a year, the port still isn't willing to welcome the "transportation network companies" (TNCs) with a contract. The issue, the port commission says, comes down to how much data the TNCs are willing to share.
In other realms, Uber has been particularly cagey about data sharing. When one Seattle law firm put in a public records request to find out the number of Uber drivers on Seattle streets, Uber tried to sue. (A judge later denied Uber a preliminary injunction against the records request.) Never mind that an Uber spokesman had already shared a rough estimate of the number of Seattle drivers at a recent public talk; Uber claimed the information was proprietary.
The port commission does have a reason to block TNCs, though, and it's not all about protecting cabbies. Back in 2012, the airport "greened" its on-demand taxi fleet by requiring that taxis maintain a highway rating or equivalency of 45-miles-per gallon or greater. Historically, transportation to and from the airport has created a serious source of emissions. According to the port commission’s greenhouse gas inventory from 2006, all the emissions from planes below a height of 3,000 feet, plus the airport's ground transportation, emitted 400,000 metric tons of CO2 a year. Transportation ferrying people to and from the airport emitted nearly as much: 380,000 metric tons.
“We've said you need to have at least a 45 miles-per-gallon standard. and Uber—because they don't own the fleet, and the fleet is continuously in dynamic flux—they've been saying we can't really assure you of anything,” port commissioner Fred Felleman said.
But Felleman doesn't believe that's true. “The fact of the matter is I am open to a green equivalent," he said. "Like if it's not strictly miles per gallon, you carpool, you have no ‘deadheading’—returning [to the airport] without a person in the car. These are things that have the equivalent of being green. But what we're saying is you have to be able to verify it.”
Uber and Lyft, then, would have to share data showing that their services are, in fact, saving emissions—an argument that both companies have made. Still, there’s very little research to support the idea that TNCs actually incentivize taking single-person cars off the road. After New York City mayor Bill de Blasio suggested that TNCs may have been increasing congestion on city streets, a $2 million city analysis showed that TNCs weren’t exactly driving the city’s latest increase in congestion, but did contribute to congestion overall.
At a port commission meeting on Tuesday, Mitchel Matthews, senior operations manager for Uber in Washington State, told the port commission that Uber could provide a verifiable green equivalent, but would only show the data backing this up after the guarantee of a contract.
Otherwise, Matthews said, “to date the level of data asked for cannot be provided to the airport.”
A representative from Lyft also assured commissioners that Lyft Line—its carpooling system—could meet the port’s green equivalent.
The port commissioners, however, slammed Uber’s offer. Instead, they demanded that port staff go back and negotiate with the TNCs to provide a verification system before the port inked a contract.
“We've got to figure out a way to bring [Uber and Lyft] into the fold, but make sure we do it with these [environmental] principles in mind,” port commissioner Courtney Gregoire said.
Gregoire went on to express her frustration with the amount of time it’s taken for the TNCs to even come up with proposals that meet the port’s standards. “In that time I’ve incubated a child,” she said, “and that child is crawling.”
The port commission also criticized the San Diego airport’s approach to ridesharing platforms. The San Diego airport is one of the only other airports in the country with a green taxi standard, but signed permits with TNCs anyway that allowed TNCs to pay a fee instead of abiding by the green standard. Port staff said that most TNC drivers ended up paying the higher fee, which did nothing to cut down on emissions.
The Port of Seattle’s five commissioners said that wasn’t good enough.
The problem, though, is that even while it may not be explicitly legal for Lyft and Uber drivers to pick up people from the airport, that much is already happening. Riders pin their locations at nearby hotels, then call drivers and reroute them to the airport. Drivers sit in the cell phone lot and wait for the call.
One Uber driver who spoke up at the port commission meeting said that 40 percent of his fares take him to the airport. If he's unable to take riders back from the airport, it's bad for emissions and bad for his business.
Another Uber driver, Travis Simmons, criticized the port commission for "protecting cabs" at TNC drivers' expense.
“Cabs for years didn't pick up black people,” Simmons said. “Why are you protecting [them]?”
But Simmons did have some words for the TNCs, too: “By the way, I’m not doing this so Uber and Lyft can [eventually] have driverless cars and extract money from our community without putting any money back in.”
This post has been updated.