Archives for April, 2013

Rogue Transportation Apps Pose Grave Safety Threat

 

Apps that allow people to hail taxicabs and limousines are spreading rapidly across the United States. Some of these are wonderful innovations, allowing a passenger to hail a taxi with the push of a button. Others, called “rogue apps,” can amount to little more than 21st century hitchhiking, and can be every bit as dangerous.

The first major rogue app to appear was Uber. It showed up in cities and didn’t ask anyone for permission to start operating on-demand vehicle service. When regulatory officials caught up to them to try to make them play by the same rules as taxicab and limousine companies, Uber unleashed its followers and PR machine in an attempt to browbeat authorities under the guise of supporting innovation. In some cases it has worked, while in other instances Uber has complied with local for-hire vehicle regulations or is in litigation.

Now comes an even greater threat to public safety, the so-called peer-to-peer ride sharing apps. These allow almost anyone with a vehicle who can pass an undefined background check to suddenly play taxi driver on a Saturday night to pick up extra cash. These include apps such as SideCar and Lyft, both of which purportedly claim that no one can regulate them because passengers pay suggested “donations” rather than a required fare.

The vast majority of licensed taxi drivers in the US, for example, have to undergo stringent criminal background checks through a government regulatory agency. If these drivers for Lyft or SideCar are not governed by a regulatory agency, how can these companies assure us that their drivers have clean criminal records? A Google search — or will they simply sign a piece of paper self-certifying their own clean record? These companies are fond of saying they run background checks, yet are vague as to how they do that.

Such apps open wide the door for sex offenders, felons or just plain bad drivers to get behind the wheel and drive unwitting passengers around town. At South by Southwest Interactive in Austin, Texas, this year, The New Yorker magazine reported that drivers for Uber recruited for the conference were given as little as five minutes of instruction before they hit the street and started picking up passengers.

Speaking of passengers, as someone who has been involved in the taxicab industry for decades, I can say that drivers meet all kinds of people. Many are nice, quiet passengers. Others can be violent, angry, drunk, belligerant, cheap, haughty, or any combination thereof. The dangers that can ensue when a relatively untrained driver meets up with a difficult passenger are easily imaginable. In Washington, DC, a passenger has launched a $750,000 lawsuit involving an Uber driver who allegedly slapped him, spit in his face and told him he “hates Americans and homosexuals.”

Don’t worry, say the rogue apps. They tell us that their services will, over time, weed out the bad apples by rating passengers. This practice opens up the enormous possibility of discrimination. Secret ratings of passengers fosters and institutionalizes unlawful denial of service based on a passenger’s race, age, sex, neighborhood, use of a service animal, or use of a wheelchair. Passengers could be effectively banned from future service because they are a minority, or because the driver didn’t want a service dog in his vehicle, or because he felt the payment or “donation” wasn’t big enough.

Regulations provide assurances that all passengers must be treated equally. Limited regulation is crucial to the survival of accountable, non-discriminatory service. Regulation sets the number of taxicabs on the streets. Without it, the streets would be flooded with taxis. Are you a student who needs an extra 50 bucks tonight? All you have to do is sign up as an app driver, drive your car around and poach customers from the taxicab driver working the same streets. The city isn’t counting you as a licensed driver bcause you aren’t regulated.

Now imagine 250 students, or 1,000 students, all trying to do the same thing on Saturday night in the same city and you get the picture of what deregulation looks like: utter chaos where quality of service plummets and every ride turns into a negotiation. Equally critical, these students presumeably have regular car insurance, but regular insurance does not cover commercial transportation service. So the students and the passengers would both put themselves at great risk.

To put part of this issue in context, consider that in the 1970s and 1980s deregulation, including in the taxicab industry, swept across America. Cities found it was the wrong direction (higher fares, increased trip refusals, significant overcharging of passengers, other illegal activities, aggressive solicitation, vehicles operating without insurance, deterioration of vehicles, dramatic consumer complaints) and have since re-regulated taxicabs.

The taxicab industry believes in limited regulation that provides for the safety of the public, including commercial taxicab insurance; that sets fares to avoid price gouging; and that serves all areas of a community at all times in a nondiscriminatory manner.

Rogue apps, meanwhile, refuse to characterize themselves as taxicab dispatching services and insist they do not need to comply with local laws governing all other taxicab dispatching services.

What about serving the elderly, low-income or disabled? The elderly may not have a smartphone with which to use an app in the first place. Low-income residents may not have a credit card, a requirement of most apps. Passengers with disabilities—especially those who use a wheelchair—might as well not bother hailing Uber, SideCar or Lyft for an accesisble vehicle with a ramp, because those services claim they don’t have to comply with regulations so they don’t have to offer those types of vehicles in their fleets.

I want to be clear: no one is saying the public shouldn’t have access to transportation apps. The public wants apps, and our industry wants apps that connect them with more customers. However, for a reasonable debate over how apps are used to move forward, the public and regulators need to fully understand the dangers being opened up by drivers with little to no training or background checks, operating vehicles that are not subject to the same safety and insurance standards as regulated taxicabs.

If rogue apps are allowed to continue, it’s an inevitability that passengers will be harmed at the hands of unprofessional drivers—leading us too late to realize we should have done more to enforce taxicab regulations that protect public safety, guard against discrimination and ensure community-wide service.

Alfred LaGasse is the CEO of the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association.

The Use of “Rogue” Apps for Ordering Taxi Services at Airports

 

At first blush, the issue of rogue phone apps to arrange local taxi services may seem to be an issue impacting only local taxi regulatory authorities. However the primary market being targeted by such technologies is that of the airport taxi and limousine market. As such, it behooves the members of the Airport Ground Transportation Association to become involved and to understand the issues surrounding these apps in order to determine what issues or actions(s) if any might be appropriate.

Rogue taxi apps are simply defined as web-based and/or cell phone based sites that electronically connect the user seeking a taxi ride to the closest taxi driver that has signed up to be on their network. Using this operational methodology, these rogue apps information providers are able to avoid compliance with local regulations as they dispatch cabs or limousines. In essence, they are operating as taxi and limousine dispatch companies without bothering to obtain a license or comply with any requirements of the local ground transportation agency.

The primary firm involved in this activity at this time is UBER. In current litigation, this firm is challenging traditional city taxi and limousine regulatory authorities, arguing as a defendant that they not dispatch companies, and therefore do not fall under local regulations. Their primary argument is that they are using new technology to assist taxi drivers to secure more business. Under their contention, they are similar to other travel internet firms such as Expedia or Travelocity, and are merely providing information to the potential customer and accepting payment as service to their customers.

These types of transportation apps have the potential to become extremely popular and cities, and to a more limited extent airports, need to be prepared to respond appropriately to this new technology and its implications for the public. Instead of electronically connecting the user with a taxi or limousine (sedan) dispatch system which uses its automatic GPS based system to offer the trip to the closest or next in the zone for pickup, these rogue apps connect directly to the taxi or sedan driver.

Basically, local regulators need to determine whether the public’s interest is being served by these rogue apps. For airports, however, there are at least two serious questions to address. One is the need to determine how this rogue app is different from an individual taxi driver giving his contact information to a user or using his own web site on the internet to ask users to call him directly. The other, is the rogue app provider conducting a business from the airport when a customer is in the airport and requests a taxi or sedan ride?

Local taxi and sedan regulators, as well as operators, have vocally protested these rogue apps as not being in the public’s interest, arguing that they will cherry-pick the best fares (i.e. airport trips), leaving local operators with the obligation to serve the transportation dependent users –– often poorer inner city residents. Secondly, these local groups further contend that these apps are not the same as Expedia/Travelocity-type internet sites, but rather, taxi or sedan dispatch companies and should follow the same local regulations as the local companies.

It is the position of AGTA (the Airport Ground Transportation Association) that airports and their ground transportation operators should support the position of local regulators — that these rogue apps companies are dispatch companies. Furthermore, when such apps are utilized to arrange trips from the airport, they are essentially conducting a business from the airport and therefore, should be required to apply for an airport business license to do so –– taking full legal responsibility for airport trips.