The Uber Fight Comes to the South
You'd think the GOP would side with ride-sharing companies such as Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar over the taxi cartels and the local governments that are trying to protect them. After all, the Republican party campaigns on smaller government, less regulation, and entrepreneurship. And this summer, the Republican party and RNC chairman Reince Priebus issued a petition on the GOP's website calling on readers to support the ride-sharing company Uber against "taxi-unions and liberal bureaucrats."
However, as Josh Barro noted in a recent article at The New York Times, Republicans have not always lived up to their rhetoric when it comes to legalizing ride-sharing. He pointed to a recent study by the R Street Institute (where I work) and Engine, a group that promotes policies that favor start-ups, that graded 50 cities on how friendly they were to ride-sharing services and for-hire transportation more broadly. The study found no correlation between how friendly cities were to ride-sharing and the direction they leaned politically. For example, the three cities that earned A grades (Washington, Fresno, and Minneapolis) and the two that earned F grades (Portland, and Las Vegas) are all decidedly blue in their voting patterns.
As for the South, the scores ranged from B+'s for Virginia Beach, Louisville, and Raleigh, to D-'s for San Antonio and Kansas City, Mo. As the battles over ride-sharing heat up all over the South, here's an opportunity for Southern Republicans to prove that they really are for limited government and that it's not just a catchphrase.
Lawmakers, regulators, and city officials are discussing or have recently discussed ride-sharing in Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Virginia. Most of these states are solidly Republican on the state -- and in many cases the local -- level. But the reaction to ride-sharing has been mixed, with some regulators and lawmakers wanting to ban the practice and others supporting a lighter touch that reflects the unique nature of these services. For example, both Uber and Lyft use smartphone apps to schedule and dispatch riders, whereas traditional taxis are dispatched by telephone and can be hailed off the street.
All too often, state and local officials have been quick to place ride-sharing services in the box of unlicensed taxi operators. Major cities across the country restrict the supply of taxi licenses, sometimes forcing operators to buy taxi "medallions" from the local government. In New York City, medallions have topped $1 million and an entire industry has sprung up around financing them. Traditional taxi operators also accept massive regulations from local governments on everything from where stickers are placed to how much they can charge for fares. Ride-sharing companies argue that they are already much more transparent than taxis, both in terms of the prices they charge and in offering a rating system for every driver and every passenger.
If Republicans in the South want to show they're truly for free markets and limited government, they should support efforts both to avoid overregulation of these new services and to repeal the anti-competitive measures already on the books for taxis and limos. They should work to ensure that all segments of the for-hire driver market compete on an even playing field. For example, there should be uniform minimum requirements in regards to such things as background checks and liability insurance.
Bold Southern Republicans should even consider abolishing taxi medallions entirely. Let taxis compete with ride-sharing services (and each other) on rates, and loosen the numerous regulations companies have to comply with that have nothing to do with public safety.
The American people are right to ask whether conservative politicians stand for less government, or for cronyism and big business. If Republicans in the solid-red South decide to lead the way in creating a level playing field for ride-sharing companies and traditional taxi cabs to compete, it would go a long way toward proving conservatives can walk the walk, and not just talk the talk.
Kevin Boyd is an associate policy analyst with the R Street Institute. He lives in Louisiana.