Houston’s Taxis Uber-Concerned About Ride-Sharing Apps
Art by Blake Jones
What makes a taxi company a taxi company? Is it ferrying riders for money? Is it dispatching vehicles all over the city? Is it having a fleet of cars bearing the same fetching shade of yellow?
You would think this question would be easy to answer. Watching the Houston City Council convinced me otherwise.
They were debating the fate of Uber and Lyft: the ride-sharing apps that spread from the streets of San Francisco to 38 countries. The two have taken smartphone-powered ride-sharing to every major city in America, save one. Houston.
Full disclosure: Uber was a sponsor of Free Press Summer Fest.
“It is true, the industry is changing,” Council Member Mike Laseter said at a June meeting. “It is true we need to be responsive to that change… This has significant financial impact on the citizens of Houston, not to mention the transportation needs across the city of Houston.”
In other words, the city can’t make up its mind. It doesn’t know whether to embrace Uber and Lyft with open arms or return to the comforting familiarity of entrenched interests like Yellow Cab. Houston’s government has come to a split road and left the car idling.
Will Uber come to Houston?
The Uber Experience
Uber strongly resembles a taxi company. You use the app to call Uber drivers to your location. They drive you around the city for a comparable cost to a taxi, depending on the trip. Just don’t call it a taxi company.
“We’re a transportation technology company,” said Chris Nakutis, general manager of Uber Houston. “We’re a technology that connects rider and driver.”
I signed up for Uber the morning before Houston’s city council met to fruitlessly debate the company’s fate. Joining was painless. Name. Email. Credit card. Good to go.
The service uses dark, sleekly elegant stylings. Uber is cool, and it wants you to know that it’s cool. This is a service for transporting people who do important things.
I used Uber to get from the Free Press Houston offices to City Hall. The irony of using the service being debated was too inviting to pass up. I pushed a button in the app, and a driver came to my location within 15 minutes. He seemed like a nice guy, albeit one who was still working on English as his second language.
I sat in the back seat of his silver two-door and watched him struggle with an ancient TomTom GPS. He didn’t know where City Hall was. I had already pulled up the address, so I gave it to him. We were off.
My final bill came out to $7.51 for an 8-minute drive over 2.08 miles. Not bad. Definitely cheaper than parking downtown for a four-hour meeting. The app paid the bill automatically, and I got out of the car.
The Flamboyant Younger Brother
Lyft was the other company under fire at city council. It feels like bizarro-world version of Uber.
Lyft operates the same way: Download app, input credit card, push button to call ride.
The difference is customer relations. Lyft is bright and friendly. It puts pink mustaches on its cars. The service’s website cheerfully recommends you greet drivers with a fist bump.
Drivers undergo a background check and interviews with the company-a step farther than Uber.
Like Uber, Lyft also does not consider itself a taxi service.
“There are many key differences between Lyft and a taxi, which is why Lyft should not be regulated as [such] and does not fit into existing regulations for taxis,” Lyft representative Katie Dally told me over email.
It bills itself as a way to connect you with “a friend with a car.” A friend who you give a “donation” at the end of the ride. A donation that’s calculated automatically by distance or time. You know, exactly like a taxi.
Protesting in Yellow
The protesters gathered at the city council meeting also took a less generous view of ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft.
“They feel like they are not a cab company, but they are picking up people for fares,” said Yellow Cab driver Karl Brown. Brown called Uber’s self-definition a “smokescreen.”
“Really they’re a cab company,” he said. “What they’re trying to do is circumvent the system.”
I got a lot of similar responses from the other cab drivers in the council chambers. Many cab drivers who spoke to me referenced a deep sense of unfairness, like Uber had personally wronged them.
“This law has been here for many years, and we have been abiding by it,” driver Stella Frank told me. “They want to do business, they have to follow the law and do exactly what we do here.”
This isn’t the first time Uber (oddly few people mentioned Lyft) has run into reactions like Frank’s. European cab drivers staged protests in London, Paris, Madrid and Berlin against the San Francisco company. They brought up many of the same concerns Houstonians did, calling it remote and harder to hold accountable.
The Uber version of accountability is a system where drivers and riders rate each other on a 5-star system. To cab drivers used to heavy city oversight, this is unthinkable.
“I don’t have no felony, but they still check me to get my cab license,” Frank said. “With Uber, there is no serious background check like we do with the city.”
Uber drivers undergo a background check before starting. The company also checks their cars to make sure they’re in working order. Compared to a cab driver’s litany of drug tests and background checks, driving for Uber or Lyft is a breeze.
In Uber’s Words
Uber considers itself a technology company, not a taxi company.
“We don’t own any vehicles,” Nakutis said, comparing the company to PayPal and eBay in terms of connecting customers and sellers. “I think we are a technology company more than a transportation company.”
Because Uber doesn’t believe that it is a taxi company, it went ahead and launched UberX in Houston with no permits from the city council. As of this writing, you can pick up the app and request a ride from an UberX driver.
A vocal section of the city council sees that as illegal. Council Member Michael Kubosh began a discussion with one Uber driver by asking, “Are you aware that you’re operating illegally right now?”
Nakutis explained that Uber is simply technology too new and different to fit into existing regulations.
“It’s not illegal, it’s an undefined gray area that the city is working to define,” he said. “Current city codes just don’t account for transportation network companies because Uber’s so new.”
Nakutis applauded Mayor Parker for working with Uber to set out specific rules for Uber and other transportation network companies.
The city currently has a page of proposed rule changes to legalize Uber and Lyft while adding some regulations to their operation. The latest one would add requirements like a city inspection and Houston-specific permit for Uber drivers. You wouldn’t be able to use a car that’s seven or more years old or has more than 150,000 miles on it. Basic stuff.
Nakutis said Uber could help Houston. He claims other Uber-ified cities like Seattle have seen lower drunk driving rates.
Why It All Matters
The critical difference between Uber and Lyft and the cab companies they want to compete against is regulation.
Taxis have had a century in America to accumulate rules for operation. Cities know how to handle them. Uber and Lyft are different enough that they can make a good case for not following the old regulations. Houston is still working out whether to lump them in with the old guard (and those rules) or set up something new. Cab companies want the former, while Uber prefers the latter.
What should be a simple case of classification or adding regulation becomes more complicated when you factor in taxi companies’ animosity toward ride-sharing newcomers.
The taxi business hasn’t changed in years. Even with smartphones and the internet, Yellow Cab offers a poorly made app. It works only in Houston and uses dated layouts. Compared to Uber’s elegant one-app-for-every-city design, Yellow Cab looks positively archaic.
Uber and Lyft’s move into Houston sparks existential resentment from cab drivers. Sure, they dislike that the ride-sharing companies break the law, but they also reject their vision of travel.
“They’re not doing it right,” Brown told me. “They’re trying to say this is a computer age, everything is internet-based. Which it is, a lot of things. But when you talk about something like this, no, it’s not internet-based like that.”
Solve This, Damn It
The city council has let this debate drag on for months. They’re not scheduled to vote on the proposed rules until July 30 (or sooner if the city reaches an agreement). We need a solution.
Uber driver Mario Villarreal hopes the council will resolve the issue, though he has reservations.
“Seems like there’s a lot of politics,” Villarreal said. “It’s gonna come down to who has the better lobbyist, really.”
He sees the contest between Uber and Lyft and the city as one driven by other factors than the businesses themselves.
“I think it’s really about the money,” Villarreal said. “If it was about the people, Uber would be passed.”
by Kyle Nazario