Editorial: Ride-sharing services still need scrutiny. Is there an app for that?

The Kansas City Area Transportation Authority is no longer just buses. RideKC Freedom On-Demand offers an Uber-like feature.
The Kansas City Area Transportation Authority is no longer just buses. RideKC Freedom On-Demand offers an Uber-like feature. The Kansas City Star

The public transportation industry is changing in Kansas City — and everywhere else.

This week, Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens signed legislation regulating app-based ride-sharing services including Lyft and Uber. The new rules, encouraged by lobbyists from the companies, are looser than those passed by the Kansas City Council.

It didn’t take long for the city’s traditional ride-for-hire company, Yellow Taxi, to say it would move most of its drivers into a similar service. It’s called zTrip.

At the same time, the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority announced a one-year pilot program offering a similar ride-on-demand feature. The original idea was to provide transportation for the disabled, but the service, called RideKC Freedom On-Demand, will be available to anyone.

We’ve come a long way from sticking a hand in the air to hail a cabbie.

We like the changes coming to the city’s private transportation infrastructure. But that’s not really the point: Phone-based ride-sharing is here, whether we like it or not.

Now, Kansas City must ensure the new systems do what they say they’ll do: provide cheaper transportation that’s more convenient and that provides jobs for lots of our neighbors.

We’re disappointed that the new state law relaxes background checks for transit drivers. Kansas City wanted such checks conducted annually; the new state law waives that requirement.

By the way, we’re also worried that state lawmakers keep overriding local regulations. Stop it.

The city should keep a close eye on what the new requirements mean for riders’ safety. After a year, it will want to assess whether accidents are more common with ride-sharing vehicles than with traditional cabs.

The city should also ask the police department to maintain a database of accidents involving ride-sharing vehicles such as Uber and Lyft. Perhaps the police can keep track of speeding violations, too.

While we’re at it, the city — or the state — will want to watch how drivers are treated. Uber drivers seem particularly angry at the company, complaining about wages and poor labor conditions.

While we applaud the KCATA’s new on-demand service, we want to keep a close eye on how the pilot program works as well.

The transportation authority is supported by taxpayers. Of its $96.5 million budget, only $11.5 million comes from operations. The rest — including $60 million raised through sales taxes — comes from public sources.

That taxpayer support gives the authority an unfair advantage if it decides to compete directly with Uber, Lyft and zTrip. That doesn’t seem to be a problem yet, but the possibility is worth watching.

And the KCATA should not allow itself to be distracted from the business of bus service. Its main mission is still getting Kansas Citians from one place to another, cheaply and safely. The bus remains the priority. That shouldn’t change.

We hope and expect these caveats won’t be relevant a year from now. Kansas City is fully embracing the 21st century of public transit. But the new transportation landscape requires careful navigation.