IATR regulators meet in the ‘Belly of the Beast’

IATR regulators meet in the ‘Belly of the Beast’

This year the International Association of Transportation Regulators (IATR) landed in San Francisco, the ‘Belly of the Beast’ – as IATR-president Matt Daus put it. The heart of Uber-country and a state (California) which likes to experiment: with statewide app-licensing and GPS-meters for instance. Next year will be even better as Austin (Texas), which banned Uber earlier this year, will be the conference host. ‘How do we see the future as licensing authorities?’ – was the burning question at this, IATR’s 29th annual meeting.

“Your Uber waits outside” beckoned the big posters at the airport. Welcome to San Francisco! Instead, I chose a taxi. The driver with a hood that completely covered his head, remained behind the wheel and made no effort to help. How do you mean – quality problems in the taxi industry?

His company –traditionally called DeSoto – had been renamed to the name of an app – Flywheel – and the cab painted app-red. The driver only spoke to explain how his integrated Flywheel terminal (communication centre, GPS meter, card reader, navigation and payment system – all in one) worked. “All you need in one box.” How did he see the taxi trade in San Francisco? “I give it a year before all taxi companies are bankrupt. Uber and Lyft have taken over everything.”

The most notable and impressive speech came from keynote speaker Patricia Gatling, a former New York City Commissioner for Human Rights and the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the governor of New York State. In her powerful presentation she reminded the audience of the need to offer everyone access to transport – without restrictions. Not just people with reduced mobility, but also those living in parts of the city which have no easy access to taxis, Ubers or other means of transport. And those who have no credit card. She insisted the whole transport sector must make its contribution to the protection of the environment, for all industry segments to be regulated in the proper way and warned against creating low-cost gig-type jobs like Uber and Lyft do.

An impressive argument for a level playing field and proper regulation of the entire transport system. Unfortunately -under pressure from Uber & Co’s well-funded lobbying machine more than half of the US states already opted for a looser regulation of apps – Transportation Network Companies (TNC’s) at state level. While states are not equipped for this task, taxis and (some) for hire cars (FHV) are still under strict local regulatory control.

What are the key elements for regulators these days? Safety is an important issue, with many cities opting for a ‘Vision Zero’ approach to road safety copied from Sweden. Add to that: better access for each form of transportation to each part of the city, more sustainable and more efficient forms of transport linking elements of taxi, FHV, TNC’s in new forms of public transport such as Bridj and Chariot. In cities like Boston, Kansas City and San Francisco these freely roaming app-controlled forms of microtransit provide the new public transport. MaaS – Mobility as a Service was hailed as a new and innovative subscription-based approach which should be regulated as a platform.

Or, as one speaker put it, “Being innovative is not good enough. Is the transport safe and meeting our requirements? And when we are looking at taxi regulation, what rules do we really need? Ideally taxis should support public transport. Unfortunately the taxi sector is very fragmented in San Francisco.” Still, San Francisco looked critically at its own taxi rules and concluded that there was a lot of ‘dead wood’ that could be cut. Fewer rules could well work in favour of the taxi sector, as examples from Seattle and Washington DC showed.

Professor Susan Shaheen has been following shared transportation for 20 years. She commented that “TNC’s are no ride-sharing, because they are paid trips. We have different terms we use and it’s high time to redefine them. The transport environment is changing rapidly, especially if we look at shared and connected cars. I would encourage people from the taxi sector to think about the future and the role that you can and want to play. The new mobility allows us to reorganize the city and make it more liveable and sustainable.” Taxis should be more widely shared where and when legally possible.

Both regulators and the taxi industry have a lot to think about. “Who are we as regulators? Do we have a code of ethics, for instance?” asked Tom Drischler, former Los Angeles regulator and stepping down as IATR vice-president. “Where are we going as regulators? Often our regulations are too strict and don’t apply to all forms of transport equally.” Speaking for the taxi sector Blair Davies (Australian Taxi Industry Association-ATIA) said “we have to think ‘outside the box’. Ask ourselves questions about some of our industry’s rules and practices”

That was exactly what Dwight Kines (Transdev), representing the Taxicab Limousine and Paratransit Association (TLPA), meant when he said his taxi members were busily working on a new business model that sometimes copies TNC-behaviour. Why not add TNC-drivers to the fleet at busy times under the company’s own app? And provide a better taxi quality, have a more competitive pricing structure, better marketing and cheaper dispatching?”

Two super-interesting sessions unfortunately ran parallel: the regulation of TNC’s at airports and the use of GPS meters – basically apps which compute the fare on the basis of GPS-coordinates. Major US airports have already embraced Uber & Co as source of extra income from fees and created space for them.

On the ‘meter-front’ the American metrology people are closely following the Flywheel-experiment using its GPS-terminal as a meter.

The quest for the Universal app – an app that works for different types of transport and gives the user different choices – was the last agenda item. But before that local licensing authorities had the chance to give a glimpse into their local cuisine.

Kate Toran had gone through her taxi regulations in San Francisco and wondered aloud why we regulate transport. Answer: because of security, accessibility, durability, good customer service and to correct an imperfect market. Tracey Cook (Toronto) described the tumultuous way her city had finally decided to regulate TNC’s despite furious objections from the taxi sector. Helen Chapman described the latest measures of Transport for London taken at the instigation of Sadiq Khan, the new taxi-friendly mayor of London: language tests for rental car (Uber-)drivers, card and contactless payment terminals in taxis (this autumn), changing the famous Knowledge into an official and formal education, more taxi ranks in the city and later – from 2020 – the greenest taxis in the world when the heart of London becomes an Ultra Low Emission Zone. There is about 65 million pound (€ 72 million) available to help the taxi trade switch over smoothly.

Singapore’s Jenny Teo said the rise of TNC’s had been beneficial for commuters who failed getting a cab during the rush hours. With its seven taxi companies and 28,000 taxis, the city-state is already well served with taxis. Next year, all PHV must be officially licensed and follow strict rules. Teo ended by saying “I’m trying very hard to make the taxis and TNC’s work together harmoniously. (Laughs). Wish me luck.”

Back to the airport, I take a taxi – what else? This driver was the exact mirror image of the one who picked me up on arrival: friendly, interested, informative. Of course, we talked about Uber & Co: “Yeah, they’re killing the industry. From the airport you would have paid 30 dollars with Uber. With me it’s about 42. But not everyone finds apps and private drivers equally charming.” (Wim Faber)

  • IATR’s Annual: this year in San Francisco – the birthplace of Uber – next year Auston, where Uber was banned. Symbolic?

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