Ride-shares should be model for Pittsburgh cabs

Pittsburgh officials have added even more fuel to the fire under the Uber and Lyft debate. On Thursday, two Public Utility Commission (PUC) administrative law judges recommended against granting ride-sharing company Uber permanent license to operate in parts of Pennsylvania.

The outcome stands to affect students attending Pittsburgh schools, many of whom don’t own cars and rely almost exclusively on public transit to navigate the city. Uber and Lyft are popular services among students, as students view them to be more accessible and reliable than the city’s sporadic, often fickle taxi services.

The PUC judges cited Uber’s lack of transparency and apparent concern for its patrons as the primary reason behind the decision. While Uber and its competitor Lyft could stand to be far more transparent in their data reporting — and would probably benefit from this approach — Pittsburgh cab companies need to consider adopting and lobbying to legalize similar ride-share practices before shutting out Uber and Lyft completely. Uber and Lyft present a threat to the highly regulated taxi industry because their services are notoriously more accessible and reliable, largely due to their use of smart phone apps to match drivers with passengers and to facilitate payment. Furthermore, the available data indicates that Uber and Lyft are less discriminatory of patrons and better service poor areas, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Despite the public benefit of these measures, existing regulations cause many ride-share practices to toe the line of legality. For one, Uber and Lyft are able to keep their fares low in part because their drivers do not need to maintain their vehicles or undergo training or background checks to the same extent as taxi drivers.

Reducing the rigor of training and background checks is not an easy course for cab companies to pursue, and for the public’s sake, maybe they shouldn’t try. But there are more legal and practical ways in which taxi services can and should change their practices: improving accessibility of their services and eliminating discriminatory passenger screenings.

Public outcry over the Uber and Lyft cease-and-desist measures have shown that the market isn’t going back: Cab companies and the government that regulates them cannot simply reverse the trend with legal roadblocks. Instead, taxi services need to recognize the new direction of transportation services and work within legal means to adjust their practices, while pushing the law to adapt. Rather than complaining that ride-share companies are deregulating the industry, taxi services need to fight the more constricting and antiquated regulations that prevent them from competing.

This is not to say that ride-share companies are not without fault or exempt from the push for change. It is widely acknowledged that Uber and Lyft have engaged in less-than-transparent dealings. In order to demonstrate the concern for patrons that the PUC demands, ride-share companies need to share their data; It’s just honest, good practice. Plus, the benefits of open data would likely outweigh the deterrents. It would offer publicly accessible proof of ride-sharing as a superior and more just model of transportation service.

Both parties have work to do. Cab companies need to lobby for change, and ride-share companies need to be transparent about their practices. And in the public’s interest, the government needs to adapt regulations to changing times and institute mandates to demand data from ride-share companies to promote transparency and fair competition.