We all want to see fewer drivers on the road, and in growing numbers of cities across the world, we’re seeing a variety of creative approaches to the car problem. Bicycling, more walkable dense development and increased public transit services are interconnecting to allow people to live without cars, while commuter tolls and high license fees discourage car ownership in some regions. Meanwhile, in others, car and ride-sharing services allow people to enjoy some of the convenience of car ownership, without the annoying parts.
Here’s where things start to get sticky. On the surface, car and ride-sharing services provide a great opportunity to drivers and people who need to get from A to B, but don’t need or want to own a car. In car shares, people pay into a system to access cars when and where they need to; for example, to pick up a load of heavy materials at the building supply store, or to have a weekend getaway. Other systems allow private drivers to effectively rent out their cars when they don’t need them. Ride-shares, meanwhile, hook drivers up with potential passengers for commuting and other trips, a time-honored tradition for helping people carpool.
These sound like a great way to get both cars and drivers off the road, but there’s a hitch: many cities are not keeping regulatory pace, and they’re struggling with the rise of these services. While they want to encourage the end result of reducing traffic (and subsequent dangers like pollution and accidents), some are starting to get concerned about the safety of services that aren’t as tightly regulated as more traditional car rental, taxi and hire-car services. Seattle, for example, is struggling with how to handle the bloom of such services while balancing the need of its citizens.
The problem here is the very success of such programs. When they were relatively small, safety issues happened at a statistical rate similar to that in the general population. As more and more cars are enrolled in such programs, however, safety becomes a looming problem. In an unregulated industry, who is responsible for making sure drivers are licensed and safe, with good records? Who confirms that vehicles are maintained in good working order, with safety systems regularly checked? Who handles recalls and other critical safety issues?
These are looming questions as the risk of accidents involving loss of life or property increases, an inevitable consequence of the growing number of such services. In Seattle, taxi drivers are highlighting another aspect of the ride-share industry they feel is unfair: they have to pay substantial annual sums to maintain their licenses and vehicles, and are required to pass safety testing, as are their vehicles. A certain assurance is offered to passengers within the tightly regulated cab industry, which has mandated set rates.
By comparison, the ride-share industry is technically illegal, and drivers are operating without the same oversight and protections. The industry undercuts cabs, as many riders pay what they want or can, rather than being forced to adhere to the billing system used in cabs. Cab drivers can’t compete against that, and while one might consider this a natural consequence of capitalism as an industry arises to fill a hole, the safety concerns are legitimate, and must be addressed.
Getting drivers off the road is an admirable and important goal, and many cities have learned that the best way to do that is through a series of interlinked services that make it as easy as possible to live without a car or to live minimally if you own one. While car and ride-share services are largely tolerated and sometimes even welcomed, and could play an important role in reducing car ownership, the dark side of those services is emerging. It’s time for city officials to have a conversation about how to make them safe without regulating them out of existence.
Photo credit: Gloria Bell.