For a brief moment, downtown Seattle had a distinctly New York City feel to it: Dozens of cheerful yellow and orange taxicabs clogged Fourth Avenue on the afternoon of August 2, before turning up Cherry Street to encircle City Hall. But rather than demonstrating a sudden resurgence of Seattle's taxi industry, a hundred or so cabbies were protesting a surge of competition they say is stealing their fares and destroying their livelihoods.
Whether they'll get the relief they demand is another question.
Seattle's heavily regulated taxi industry is under assault from new competition. Hundreds of new limos and for-hire vehicles (those two-tone cars that kinda look like cabs) have been added to city streets in recent years—with "no planning, no impact statements, no nothing," complains longtime cabbie Joe Blondo. Cabbies accuse this competition of encroaching on the taxi industry's exclusive right to pick up hailing passengers (or "bingos," in cabbie parlance). Under state and city regulations, limos and for-hires are allowed to pick up passengers only by prearrangement. So if you've ever been solicited by a town car or a for-hire outside a bar, it seems to me that driver was breaking the law.
Chris Van Dyk, a taxi industry lobbyist, says the competition has "flooded the market. They have to pick up bingos just to stay alive." At an April 4 Seattle City Council hearing, for-hire drivers didn't dispute the allegations; they mostly pleaded for "the same rights as taxis." The city council has commissioned a taxi-demand study, due next month.
Meanwhile, increasingly popular app-based "ride-share" and dispatching services such as Sidecar, Lyft, and Uber are operating entirely outside the regulatory framework. The Seattle City Attorney's Office has determined that these services are subject to the same licensing and regulation requirements as for-hire vehicles, yet none of their drivers or vehicles are certified, licensed, or inspected.
Ironically, similar app-based technology may prove to be the cabbies' salvation. "The taxi industry needs to raise its game," argues Sanders Partee, the president and cofounder of RideCharge, creator of Taxi Magic, a phone app that can already be used to hail Orange Cabs in Seattle. Taxi Magic integrates with the taxi associations' dispatch services, adding not just smartphone hailing but GPS tracking, meter integration, and automatic payments in most markets. "Our user experience is virtually identical with these competitors," Partee says of Sidecar and Lyft.
Partee, Blondo, and Van Dyk all agree that technology is key to fending off the challenge from app-based upstarts. Blondo has high hopes for a custom app he says is being developed for Yellow Cab, Seattle's largest dispatcher. And Van Dyk goes so far as to suggest that widespread adoption of these taxi apps could defuse the current tension between cabbies and for-hires by changing consumer behavior. "To some extent, the apps will make the bingo a thing of the past," says Van Dyk, who predicts that Seattle passengers will prefer the certainty of hailing a cab from their phone rather than from a street corner. And that, says Partee, would play into Taxi Magic's strength: "moving from a ride request to a ride promise."
But the other thing on which they all agree is that there needs to be a level playing field: "ride shares" need to be regulated, and violators need to be fined and suspended. "We want enforcement," says Blondo, who warns that cabbies will file a lawsuit against the city to recoup lost earnings if regulators and police fail to crack down on the limos and for-hires. Van Dyk says "the lack of enforcement is no different from deregulation," adding that "deregulation will destroy this industry once again."
Seattle deregulated its taxi industry in 1979, with disastrous results: service declined, rates rose, and drivers struggled to make a living, according to a 2001 report from Seattle's Consumer Affairs division. As in nearly every other city that attempted deregulation, Seattle's taxi industry was reregulated five years later.
"Deregulation is a word that comes up now and again," says city council president Sally Clark, "but it's not something we're considering at this time."
But Clark also says that "in Seattle, we are hesitant to get heavy-handed all at once." So a quick truce in Seattle's war on cabs may not yet be in reach.