April 28, 2014

Give KC a lift by expanding ride options

Kansas Citians could benefit from new ride-sharing services. And existing rules governing vehicles for hire shouldn’t be allowed to keep out competition.

Kansas City is building a reputation as a tech-savvy place that welcomes young people and new ideas with open arms.

So how does Lyft fit that narrative?

The upstart ride-sharing service, aimed at millennial customers, suddenly set up operations in the city last week.

Supporters embrace the company, which stands out for the pink mustaches that drivers attach to their cars and for the convenience it offers of using smartphones to order and pay for rides.

Lyft could provide the kind of competition that would benefit the public with simple and less expensive transit service, perhaps prodding existing taxi companies to step up their game.

But critics have a different slant, and have some compelling reasons for questioning the legality of Lyft’s debut. At the head of the list is Mayor Sly James.

In a series of tweets on Monday, James said Lyft had not to his knowledge talked to city officials before coming here. A top official in the regulated industries division that oversees taxicab and livery services also said he had not been contacted.

Said James, “Our ordinances are there for lots of reasons having to do with passenger safety, consistent service/fees, prior litigation, etc. ... I’ll say it again, if Lyft wants to comply with the law, they are welcome.”

The city’s rules require vehicle safety inspections and background checks of drivers. Those are valuable public services, paid for by the companies through fees charged by City Hall.

Here’s the rub: Are these rules outdated in some ways?

Should the city — working with established players such as Yellow Cab and newcomers such as Lyft — develop new regulations that make it easier for this part of the transit industry to operate in Kansas City?

For example, Lyft says on its website that it already conducts background checks on drivers and inspects vehicles for safety defects.

Countering that, city officials note that self-inspection by profit-minded industries has a long and troubled history. That’s why a skeptical public often demands government oversight.

Existing rules governing vehicles for hire shouldn’t be allowed to keep out competition. With cooperation from Lyft and similar ride-sharing services to update the city’s regulations, the options for local transit could safely grow.

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