Uber & Lyft are a net positive for Palm Beach County
We have not needed regulation
In 2014, ridesharing companies like Uber and Lyft came to Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade counties like a hurricane, engulfing the three counties. The public welcomed Uber and Lyft and was a very popular alternative to traditional taxicabs. Uber and Lyft are network transportation companies, whereas the companies provide a phone app that connects drivers and riders. The story of Uber is being presented on the television network Showtime, in a new series called “Super Pumped” starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Kyle Chandler, and Uma Thurman.
Travis Kalanick founded UberCab in 2009 and changed the name of the company to Uber for marketing and to operate more freely from taxicab regulations in California. No longer considered a taxi company, Kalanick’s Uber expanded without regard to local or state regulations. The service was wildly popular with the public, yet it infuriated local regulators that the company did not have their permission to operate in their city or county. Kalanick’s opinion was that the company, nor its drivers, needed permission from bureaucrats.
Here in Palm Beach County, there were many contentious interactions between Uber and Lyft lawyers and county commissioners. It outraged the county commission that the ridesharing companies would not ask their permission to operate in the county, yet there were no ordinances or laws that required them to do so. It was somewhat of a gray area, and that got the powerful taxicab lobby angry.
County commissioners, taxicab drivers, and lobbyists for the taxicab industry would come to the county commission meetings with outrageous and undocumented doomsday scenarios if the rideshare companies could operate in the county. This was due to two primary factors. One was that county commissioners were shocked and insulted that a company would come into their county and not get their permission to operate. The other was the brashness exerted mostly by Uber, and somewhat by Lyft. I attended most, if not all, the county commission meetings at the time and there was no one from the public speaking in defense of the taxicabs, yet there were large numbers of drivers and riders speaking for the rideshare companies.
The second was it was a new service that few people had first-hand experience with; after all, jumping in someone’s personal car seemed scary at the time. Commissioners were upset that drivers were not going through the same background check as taxi drivers, yet it came out that Uber and Lyft were doing more comprehensive nationwide background checks while taxi cab drivers were doing Florida-only background checks. So a potential driver in New York with a poor driving record or criminal record would be caught by the ridesharing companies, keeping that driver off their platform, but would be allowed to drive for the taxi companies. This was one of many arguments by regulators and lobbyists that fell flat.
None of the absurd assertions came true, and in fact, we know Uber and Lyft have been a net positive for the community. Ultimately, in 2016, the county commission gave ridesharing companies their blessing after a rocky road of on-again/off-again negotiations. Uber and Lyft even shut down in the county for a short period and riders flooded county commissioners with angry phone calls and emails.
For my personal blog, in late 2015, I experimented to see what drivers for Lyft were actually making for a living because there were so many wild estimations being made in the press. For me, I loved the brief time I drove and see why it was so popular. The drivers vary as much as the riders they pick up. I even gave a ride to a local politician going from his house to the airport, and we had a great conversation.
Today, law enforcement often promotes Uber and Lyft as alternative means for drunk driving. Studies have shown in areas where rideshare companies operate, drunk driving has decreased as those who have had too much to drink can get picked up and taken home at the push of a button.
So, the lessons learned with ridesharing companies and with other companies are many. One, regulators should not be so strongly influenced by lobbyists and scared of new technologies or businesses. Two, don’t assume a business needs to be regulated as often the free market (as we saw in this and many other examples) is a far better regulator than the government. Three, regulators should not allow protectionist laws or ordinances to stifle innovation.
I will just add that just prior to Lyft and Uber entering Palm Beach County, the county commission had recently gone through a series of public meetings regarding taxicabs and livery services. There were county commissioners who wanted to regulate what drivers would wear, as in their opinion, we needed to show Palm Beach County in a more upscale light. For a period, the county commission even stopped offering business licenses to county taxi and livery services because the county had too many and wanted to reduce the number of licensed companies through attrition. They failed to realize that the market did not need their regulation to determine how many taxicabs or limousines were out there, the public would determine that. The public would determine if they liked a service or not - and that service would either thrive or die based on public sentiment. Regulators should often step back and let the public decide rather than draw up arbitrary regulations that often inhibit commerce and quality of life.