Break up the taxicab monopoly in Kansas City

05/10/2014 12:00 PM

05/21/2014 2:33 PM

In February, I was with six guys at a New York restaurant. We had just finished our meals and were paying the check.

Little did I know then that what we were about to experience would give me perspective on a recent controversy in Kansas City.

One in the group, who lives near New York and visits there frequently, said, “Why don’t we go to a special jazz club I know in The Village?” I chimed in that I didn’t know whether we could hail three cabs on a Saturday night.

One in our group, Mark, said to wait a moment. He pulled out his smartphone and tapped. “Ok,” Mark said. “Let’s leave now.”

Here comes the miracle part.

It took us less than a minute to walk from our table outside. And there, waiting for us, was a black eight-passenger van. It had been beckoned by Mark, using an app called Uber.

The same thing happened when we left the jazz club at midnight. Some of us wanted to go back to the hotel. Others wanted to stay out. While we were in the club, Mark had taught us all how to create an account with Uber, which stores information on you, as well as your credit card number. So, when it was time to leave, we beckoned a car with just a tap of a button, and within two minutes, a black sedan drove up.

On the way back to the hotel, the driver explained that the car was his, and that we were sharing a ride.

When we got back to Kansas City, I contacted Uber at its San Francisco headquarters and asked to speak with an executive who could fill me in on the company and tell me when Uber was coming to Kansas City.

I received a phone call from the head of global public policy at Uber, who just happened to be a native Kansas Citian. His name is Corey Owens.

Owens told me that Uber is three years old and is in 75 cities and growing fast. According to its website, Uber is now in 35 countries.

But he was very discouraging about coming to Kansas City.

“You have a virtual taxi monopoly in Kansas City,” Owens said. “Bill George’s Yellow Cabs would be a big obstacle, and we think the city would try to use its ordinances to keep us out. The city protects that near-monopoly very carefully.”

So, Uber passed on coming to Kansas City — until Friday.

Very recently, an upstart company similar to Uber, called Lyft, also decided to go up against the near-monopoly and the punitive city ordinances.

Lyft, which has big mustaches on the front of its vehicles to distinguish them, is also a ride-sharing company that is in direct competition with traditional taxis.

And, as Owens predicted, Lyft has kicked a hornet’s nest.

Lyft is almost impossible to reach for reactions. It has tight controls over who can speak for the company, unlike Uber. Its public relations staff did not return phone calls. (And likewise, calls to Bill George went unreturned.) And from what city officials have said, it has been difficult for them to set up a meeting with Lyft executives.

Lyft may have hard feelings about Kansas City. The mayor and City Council have gone bonkers over this alien system, and have done almost everything they can to prevent Lyft from operating here, including issuing citations to Lyft drivers.

The role of city officials should be to allow this novel concept, a ride-sharing company, to operate here. Their goal should not be to harass the company until it pulls up stakes and retreats.

These companies should have to meet certain standards, but they should not be treated exactly like a taxi company. If they can make it here, we will have healthy competition with the taxi business, which is likely to bring down prices and result in better service.

Everyone — share-riding companies and taxis — should be treated fairly. Newly written ordinances all over America and across the ocean have addressed inequities. If it can work in at least 75 cities, it can work here.

Everyone who is a potential Lyft or Uber customer should have the opportunity to experience something similar to what we experienced in New York. It is truly innovative. Just as the Internet has affected so many industries, ride-sharing with an app is turning city transportation on its head.

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