February 19, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 8

Dr. Wes

In the debate over ridesharing services, there’s always one group of drivers who can’t catch a break

By Dr. Wes Browning

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Lyft, Uber, Sidecar and Wingz sound like either a shady law office or prison slang for escape techniques. Which isn’t far from what it is, being the names of four ride-sharing companies that help people escape the bondages of space and time without having to drive their own cars.

That’s also what cabs and buses are for. Therefore: Conflict.

Conflict endlessly fascinates, being a key ingredient of legends and epics and sitcoms, so I don’t know if Seattle City Councilmember Sally Clark was being facetious when recently discussing regulation of ride-share companies. She said, “Not that anyone is paying attention to this issue, but just in case you’re interested,” and, “Not that anyone’s tracking this.”

No, the subject is riveting. This conflict is on the scale of Visigoths and Ostrogoths vs. Romans, or the American Civil War. It’s like, Dostoyevskian.

O.K., now we’ve all got our facetiousness out. Seriously, we have a big, huge lump of worthless metal buried under ground in Pioneer Square that was to have solved all our transportation problems by digging its own self out, and it is now about to become a permanent addition to the Seattle Underground tour. Well, now how are we going to solve all our transportation problems?

I know, let’s ride-share!

The conflict comes about because there’s already an industry dedicated to sharing passenger space in automobiles. I know this fact intimately because I was a cab driver in Seattle from May 1982 until May 1987 and I still have the emotional scars to prove it.

One part of me feels very strongly that if there is any possibility that ride-sharing could end the taxi business, it would be a great mercy upon the cab drivers who would then be relieved of the burden of hauling Seattle’s crazy-ass people around this city for far less pay than it’s worth.

But, another part of me remembers that being able to be a lease-driver those years was all that kept me from having to sell my booty under a bridge for sandwiches and cigarettes. There’s the concern that if driving people around ceases to be a job, then that’s one less way that poor people can escape poverty.

To be a cab driver in 1982, all I needed was some cash to pay for city and county licenses (as I recall about $120, total, at the time), a valid Washington State driver’s license, and a good driving record (to start with, ha ha.) 

Within a few days I was answering radio dispatches in a cab I leased nightly. I used money earned from fares to pay the lease at the end of each shift. I could start each 12-hour shift with as little as $5 to my name, and end with whatever, depending on how business was. The point is I didn’t need to own the car. I didn’t need an MBA. I didn’t need to know how to use Microsoft Word.

You never knew what kind of trips you would draw each night. You could spend an entire night ferrying drunks from bar to bar in the city. But there could also be surprises, like the couple who climbed in the cab at Northgate and told me to drive them to Vancouver, B.C. Or the time I carried a heart monitor from Seattle to Bellingham in the early hours of one morning for some kid’s surgery, the trip paid for by Children’s Hospital.

I’ve watched the city wade into conflicts involving the cab industry before and the general rule has always been, “ignore the lease drivers.” Whatever the city did, it concerned itself with taxicab owners or with passengers’ concerns and the lease drivers weren’t even asked what they needed.

If the city were to ask this time, they might find out the lease drivers don’t care about the cab companies, all they care is that they can continue to work as drivers even though they don’t own cars.

Forget the institutions. Preserve the opportunities to survive.

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