THE RIDESHARING DEBATE: Regulators across the country are debating whether to treat ridesharing companies like Lyft and Uber the same as taxi cabs.
By Kathryn Watson | Watchdog.org, Virginia Bureau
ALEXANDRIA, Va. — The intense battle over rideshare regulations in the Old Dominion is far from over.
This summer, the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles caused quite a stir when it sent rideshare companies Uber and Lyft “cease and desist” letters for violating transportation regulations in the commonwealth.
Under immense public pressure, Gov. Terry McAuliffe and the DMV eventually allowed both companies, which use app-based services to connect riders and drivers, the authority to operate temporarily in the commonwealth. But everyone agreed that Virginia’s rideshare-related laws needed to be updated for the 21st century.
Now, stakeholders have written draft transportation regulations that seemingly exempt “transportation network companies,” such as Uber and Lyft, from some regulatory burdens, like special license plates and registration fees.
With the status quo on the line, Virginia Taxicab Drivers United, located in the same Alexandria building as Virginia New Majority and Tenants and Workers United in Alexandria, is blasting the draft legislation and said drivers had no say in the process. They’re also calling for Virginia to protect drivers’ “right to work full time” and prevent drivers’ jobs from turning into “Walmart-style” part-time jobs.
Essentially, it comes down to having “the right to work full time,” said Malik Russell, communications director for Virginia New Majority.
“They’re not asking for any handouts from anybody,” Russell told Watchdog.org. “We want to work. We want to have some protection in this industry.”
Marc Scribner, a research fellow with the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank, is skeptical.
“The unions love cartels because it makes their organizing jobs much easier,” Scribner said. “Of course they wouldn’t want companies to be able to fire employees for bad behavior: their primary reason for existing is to promote lower productivity, higher prices and reduced quality of service.”
The debate to some degree hinges on a person’s philosophy of government — is more regulation of an industry good or bad? Should government pick some industries over others? Is a full-time job a right or something earned and terminated at will? To what degree is it government’s role to protect workers or consumers?
Jon Liss, executive director of Virginia New Majority, said workers — whether they drive for Uber or a traditional taxi company — just need “due process” protections in the law, like in a franchise. Taxi drivers are hoping for protections like those in Alexandria, where the city adopted regulations allowing dispute resolution protections for taxi drivers.
“Our point is not to protect bad drivers,” Liss said. “If they want to throw a camera in the car, that’s fine.”
Brandy Brubaker is a spokeswoman for the Virginia DMV, and she said they’re still collecting comments and feedback.
“The study included more than 100 stakeholders, including representatives from taxicab companies, transportation network companies, airports, limo and charter bus companies, Washington Metro Area Transit Commission, Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, state and local law enforcement, the insurance industry, trial lawyers, various cities and counties, state agencies and the disability assistance community,” Brubaker said in an email.
Virginia Taxicab Drivers United and affiliated groups fear the end of the taxicab industry if the state is flooded with new ridesharing drivers, who would increase the supply while demand remains stable.
“If the rules went through as proposed I think it would be the end of the taxi industry within a short time,” Liss said. “Once Humpty Dumpty has had that great fall and shattered all over the street, Humpty Dumpty isn’t getting up, and you’re not going to have a taxi industry.”
The private transportation landscape may change, but Scribner doesn’t think taxis will be eliminated.
“The notion that cabs will disappear entirely is just laughable,” Scribner said. “Uber, Lyft, and company won’t be able to accept street hails or use taxi stands. Taxi companies will still be able to dispatch over the phone. If only there was an app to know who has joined Virginia Taxicab Drivers United so consumers could avoid those anti-consumer drivers actively promoting higher fares and lower quality of service.”
Virginia’s legislative session kicks off Jan. 14.
— Kathryn Watson is an investigative reporter for Watchdog.org’s Virginia Bureau, and can be reached on Twitter @kathrynw5.