One of the most frustrating things about politics is that so many of the issues we endlessly debate are actually quite simple, at least from a policy perspective. Make me benevolent dictator for a year or two, and I'm sure I could solve some of our state's most intractable problems. Sure, the very wealthy would end up paying a middling state tax rate instead of the lowest in the nation, but in return we'd have amply funded public schools, universal preschool, and affordable higher education. It may take a decade or few for these basic investments to pay off fully, but once they do, the rest our state's problems will be so much more solvable.
Yes, the solutions to some problems are just obvious. But unfortunately, some, like those facing Seattle's taxi, for-hire, and limousine industry, are not. So when the Seattle Times editorial board squawks out of its ass that the council should just lift the cap on taxi licenses and legalize "ride share" services like Lyft, Sidecar, and Uberx, don't believe for a second they actually know what the fuck they are talking about.
Removing the cap on taxi licenses and allowing for-hire drivers to pick up hailing passengers (essentially turning them into flat-rate taxis) would be tantamount to deregulating access to the industry. We tried that 30 years ago. It didn't work. Prices went up, service went down, and the glut of drivers couldn't make a living. True, just because deregulation failed here back then (as it did in every other major US city that attempted it) doesn't necessarily mean some form of deregulation couldn't work today. But there is nothing to suggest that it would. So to complain that "members of the Seattle City Council have dragged their feet long enough" on this very complicated issue, is just plain crazy. In fact it's the very definition of crazy: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
Second, let's be absolutely clear about ride-sharing: It already is legal. The problem is, services like Lyft, Sidecar, and Uberx aren't ride-share—they are unlicensed for-hire vehicles. You can call them "ride-sharing" if you like, but that doesn't make it so. These are people looking to make a few extra bucks by picking you up in their car and driving you someplace. For a fee. That's not sharing.
Now, if you want to create an entirely new regulatory category for these services, fine. You could, say, treat them like limousines (on which there is no cap), only instead of specifying town cars and limos, you could let them drive the car of their choice. You know, as long as both the driver and the vehicle passes routine certification and inspection to assure customer safety. And carries adequate insurance. And to level the playing field, they should also have to pay the same license and inspection fees as all the other drivers, plus get state and local business licenses, and pay B&O taxes when due. That might work.
Except it wouldn't. Because once you really do level the regulatory playing field, the business model of these faux ride-share services no longer works. In fact, their whole model is predicated on exploiting the economic advantage that comes from competing with the highly regulated taxi, for-hire, and limousine industry, but without paying any of the associated costs. There's no free market magic here. They're not supernaturally more efficient. They're just cheating.
And that's the dilemma facing the council. Past attempts at taxi deregulation have failed, so adopting such a strategy in pursuit of leveling the playing field is hardly an obvious option. Yet a playing field leveled by enforcing comparable licensing and inspection regulations on all comers would make the current crop of "ride-share" services economically unviable. And while giving for-hire vehicles the right to pick up hailing passengers would ease the shortage of cabs on Friday and Saturday nights, it would just make it all the more difficult for already-struggling drivers to earn a living the other 152 hours of the week, when according to a recent study, supply already outstrips demand.
So yeah. I agree with the Seattle Times: We need some "sensible regulations." I'm just not yet sure exactly what these "sensible regulations" are. Because sometimes, crafting smart public policy really is as excruciatingly difficult as it seems. And that's exactly the time we're better off urging our elected officials to drag their feet in lieu of making rashly uninformed decisions.