‘Give in’ or ‘get out’ can’t be the only two options with cities and Uber/Lyft

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A connected streets vision can’t truly take off if these sides don’t come together.

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During my conversation with D.C.-based policy group Transportation for America about connected streets and the future of urban mobility, T4A Director James Corless lamented the “binary conversation” that’s materialized between city leadership and ride-hail companies like Uber or Lyft. “It’s either let them operate or shut them down,” he said.

The binary choice described by Corless isn’t going away. By now everyone knows how Uber and Lyft left Austin in protest over a new rule that requires drivers to get fingerprinted. But the companies have considered skipping town in Chicago over the same matter. In Houston, Lyft already left town over fingerprint checks, and says it has no plans to return. (Uber stayed but is still reportedly “pressing its case.”) And in Montreal, Uber threatened to close shop if the city passed a law requiring drivers to buy taxi permits (the city granted a three-month reprieve this week).

That “give in” or “get out” often feel like the only two outcomes from these discussions is yet another sign of the gap that exists between urbanists and technologists when it comes to imagining the future of cities.

The truth is both sides have much to gain from constructive partnerships, and much to lose from rigid posturing. After all, the connected streets vision can’t truly take off if these sides don’t come together.

Let’s take a closer look at some of widest divisions.

On the technology side, there’s a feeling that city officials stifle innovation with useless regulations to appease vested political interests (in this case, traditional cab companies). That position has many weaknesses, especially for companies that tout their benefits to cities.

Among other things, it’s dismissive of regulations that actually do exist to protect public safety. It can reduce nuanced policy to the simplistic fear-mongering practiced by other industries like big oil: don’t regulate us or you’ll kill jobs. It fails to comprehend that streets are public places that belong to all residents — to people, not to cars — and that therefore must be managed by local planning authorities. And it’s callous toward traditional cab drivers, who are often framed as selfish actors but are typically part of the same working-class population that ride-hail start-ups like to champion.

On the city side, there’s often a sense that these companies are regulatory bullies with strong profit motives and little concern for public service. But this mindset has shortcomings of its own.

It fails to acknowledge that many old regulations didn’t account for modern technology, and therefore aren’t as applicable today. It ignores the existing (and increasing) evidence that taxis and ride-hail services can complement public transportation—potentially helping public officials provide better transport options for less taxpayer money. And, as T4A pointed out, it underestimates the power that cities have to shape these partnerships, provided they know ahead of time what they want to achieve from tech-enabled mobility.

That last point is especially important. To the extent that cities can drive the conversation with mobility start-ups, they must have a firm sense of what they want ahead of time, and a clear idea of which issues aren’t negotiable — whether it’s public safety, data transparency, or otherwise. There’s always the chance that cities and mobility services will engage in conversations that reach a dead end anyway. But it’s hard for government to assert its authority and draw a line in the street, per se, until it’s defined its goals.

The good news is that there are some increasingly creative collaborations between these sides that try to forge productive responses to mobility challenges. Like all pilot programs, they may not succeed. But they do at least offer ideas for how city agencies and ride-hail services can work together to improve transportation equity, expand job access, and increase multi-modal lifestyles.

  • In Sao Paulo, Uber has agreed to pay a per-mile fee in exchange for operating rights in the notoriously congested city. The fee’s usage is unclear from news reports, but it should help the city cover road maintenance costs, and could conceivably be used as a congestion charge that encourages sharing or transit during rush hours. The fee reportedly is lower in less popular areas and suburbs to nudge service outside the city center.
  • In San Antonio, Uber drivers can choose whether or not to submit to background checks that include fingerprinting. Those who do get a special designation beside their name in the app that reads “verified by San Antonio Police Department,” making their profile more attractive to safety-conscious riders. Though characterized as a capitulation by some media, the compromise keeps the services operating while incentivizing top safety measures.
  • In Altamonte Springs, Florida, the city is subsidizing 20 percent of the cost of Uber trips (25 percent if the trip includes a commuter rail station). The thinking here is that ride-share can serve as a flexible transit provider in a fairly low-density area where traditional fixed-route transit is costly and unreliable. The funding came from an unused transit allocation, with area businesses also contributing.
  • In Philadelphia, UBER has partnered with the SEPTA transit agency to provide rides from 11 commuter rail stations at a 40 percent discount. The collaboration incentivizes a greater supply of drivers in those more-remote areas, promotes the first-last mile barriers that often hinder transit ridership, and discourages commuters from parking their own car at the station.
  • In the Parkmerced neighborhood of San Francisco, the real estate developer Maximus is working with both Uber and Bay Area transit agencies to give tenants $100 a month in credit toward either option. As a further incentive, shared Uber rides to and from a nearby BART or Muni station are capped at $5. The program hopes to ease residents of the suburban-style community into multi-modal lifestyles.

Again, these ventures might not all prove to be worthy models. Whether or not they work out will depend largely on the details, and how well cities understand their own mobility challenges before sitting down to discuss which tools can help meet them. The collaborative of cities that Sidewalk and T4A are building aims to increase awareness of existing pilots like those mentioned above, and also to encourage policy discussions about what’s working and what’s not.

One thing is certain: In the long run, the binary conversation of “in or out” doesn’t help anyone. Uber and Lyft can’t leave every town and stay atop the ride-hail field. (In Austin, other start-ups quickly jumped in to fill the void.) And cities that lose these services end up right where they started: searching for cost-effective ways to provide residents with equitable transport options across the region.

More conversation, please, and less ultimatum.

This post was originally published on Medium.

June 9, 2016