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Front Page » Opinion » Power play in the taxi line: protecting low-quality service

Power play in the taxi line: protecting low-quality service

Written by on June 12, 2014
Power play in the taxi line: protecting low-quality service

Like anyone who’s frequented Miami cabs, I can reel off horror stories. But I’d never heard of the Uber service until an industry delegation visited to tell me why Uber competition with taxis and limousines is bad.

Not only did they explain, they handed me a nice, professional binder full of reasons why we must keep new forms of car-for-hire competition out of Miami.

If they didn’t persuade me, their corps of lobbyists certainly was better than the corps of lobbyists for Uber and its fellow services at keeping county commissioners from rocking the industry’s boat by allowing in competition. The commission slammed the door.

Nonetheless, first Lyft and then Uber opened the door for themselves in May, setting up links between riders and independent part-time drivers of private cars who cut their own deals.

The county responded in force by creating undercover stings to entrap private drivers and impound their cars for driving people from one place to another for money.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the new services are illegal under current county rules.

But there’s also no doubt in my mind that their services are going to be better than the industry provides. And it’s clear that there is demand. Without demand, there can be no sting.

Now commissioners plan to step up enforcement, nabbing all those people who want to make a few bucks on the side providing a service that’s better than what the public gets regularly.

And the public includes tens of millions of overnight visitors to Miami-Dade, people accustomed to using services like Uber and Lyft elsewhere with success.

If they do it here, though, their chauffeurs are breaking the law and face fines and loss of vehicles. And stings are likely to accelerate as we protect the taxi and limo industries, which donate heavily to local political campaigns and hire top lobbyists.

Frankly, by law, the taxi and limo industries are right – they’re legal, and the better private service is not.

Maybe if the industries spent as much to improve service and vehicles as they spend on political donations, lawyers and lobbyists, I wouldn’t be able to denigrate our local car-for-hire world.

But my horror stories about cabs pale beside those of Emilio Gonzalez, Miami’s aviation director, who took tales of tourists taken for terrible trips on his speaking circuit last year to get regulations upgraded. He did get a change, but one that’s equivalent to dropping a Maserati body over a Model-T drive train – it looks better, but it’s still the same clunky operating system.

There’s nothing wrong with enforcing regulations, be they on car-for-hire or any of hundreds of other county code issues. But it’s amazing that all of a sudden stings spring up and manpower is devoted to a single issue – one that seems to be a problem only to the industry affected and not to those who receive the services.

It could be argued fairly that the renegade drivers are not properly vetted for driving ability or character and that their vehicles have not had a county inspection. But when you look at our taxi drivers and fleet, I’d bet that the renegades on average will do better on all counts.

Think of what that says in a community that depends on its visitors for a huge chunk of livelihood. It says that our cabs and their drivers will rank below the average motorist, not as trusted drivers, trained to explain the beauties, sights and attributes of our community in quality, comfortable cars.

That’s what we’re trying to protect: a below-average taxi experience.

So now it’s power play against power play.

The Lyft and Uber folks are putting on the pressure by willingly paying the fines and impoundment fees for Miamians who want to pick up some side money by driving folks around. The more we enforce the rules against them, the more we showcase a politically powerful industry blocking a few bucks for Joe Average.

And the industry is playing right into the hands of Lyft and Uber, getting friendly commissioners to raise the alarm for stepped-up enforcement and impounding private cars to keep out any competition for their campaign donors.

Which raises the key question: If sticking to the regulated industry we’ve always had is so darn important that we need stings to protect it, why does it continue to yield such bad service?