This Old City, Plan Philly, Technical.ly Philly Meet With the PPA To Discuss Ride-Sharing in Philadelphia
The primary goal of This Old City is the improvement of Philadelphia's public space as a means to achieving a more economically vibrant city, to improve public safety and reducing crime, to improve public health by encouraging healthier forms of transportation like walking and cycling, and to improve our environment via innovative forms of infrastructure. As we have argued before, car parking can actually inhibit achieving each one of these four core stated goals for our public space. The more room we make in the public space of our city for the storage of private automobiles, the less likely we are to achieve economic vibrancy along our commercial districts, the less likely we are to reduce vehicular death and injury, the less likely our citizens will strive for healthy lifestyles that include active transportation modes like walking or cycling to reduce obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease and the less likely our environment will reap the benefits of consuming less fossil fuel and raw materials for use by private automobiles.
To that end, and many others, we support ride-sharing. Strategies to improve personal mobility while reducing the need for private cars and their storage in the public space must include a variety transportation options for a variety of users across a variety of times in the day. We are strong proponents of better public transportation. Contributors like Conrad Benner have advocated directly for this here on the site. We are strong proponents of safer cycling infrastructure that caters not just to current riders, but to the many who view cycling as viable but are too scared to try unless more protection from cars is given. And yes, we are strong proponents of ride-sharing because the ability to quickly hail personal transportation, including cars for the disabled and various tiers and sizes of vehicles depending on the need makes it easier for Philadelphians who own cars for occasional use to give them up outright. The fewer cars we have, the more room for innovative, economically stimulating infrastructure like pedestrian plazas, protected bike lanes and parklets. "Ride-sharing" may be a misnomer of sorts and better public transit and bike infrastructure achieve even more urban planning ideals than services like UberX can provide, but enhancing personal mobility and reducing the need for private automobiles is the overall endgame here.
I brought this message of transit choice and disability access to a meeting I had with PPA executive leadership yesterday afternoon. I engaged a few other writers, each with their own expertise and perspectives on ride-sharing to join me. This meeting was a sort of reverse press conference... a listening campaign the PPA requested in order to understand why so many like myself are against developments to exclude Philadelphia from the rest of the state in regards to ride-sharing legislation. I personally thank PPA leadership for their willingness to speak to advocates for change like me. The meeting itself was cordial and fruitful and I have a higher respect for the agency than I did before. Yet although the PPA's willingness to listen is a positive step forward, like anything public policy related, ride-sharing regulations via a taxi regulator means there are devils in the details.
Leadership for the PPA panel asking questions was comprised of Corrine O'Connor - Director of On-Street Parking, Jim Nye - Director of Taxi & Limousine Services, and Rick Dixon - Senior Planning Director. The panel of writers being questioned included Ryan Briggs - Freelance Journalist, Jon Geeting - Engagement Editor at PlanPhilly, Juliana Reyes - Journalist at Technical.ly Philly and myself Geoff Kees Thompson - Founder of This Old City.
For nearly an hour and half conversation mainly focused on ride-sharing but some other questions towards the end were fielded as well. This "reverse press conference" of sorts gave myself and the other writers present, opportunity to be frank with how the PPA has been perceived throughout developments between the agency and UberX. The perception we relayed to PPA leadership was essentially two fold. One, an agency whose attempts to modernize systems and the experience of better taxi transportation appears threatened and undermined by new technologies and services disrupting their market and two, that there is an inherent conflict for the PPA so vehemently opposing ride-sharing since taxicab medallions net the agency hundreds of thousands of dollars and protect incumbent taxi owners who have paid into the system.
Overall response from the PPA hinged on two themes, the first being public safety and the second being that it is their responsibility to uphold the rule of law and that UberX and others like Sidecar are either currently or have previously broken those laws. PPA leadership is concerned that services like UberX refuse to provide them with driver lists so the PPA can ensure those drivers are vetted properly with background checks and insurance. They also feel a duty to uphold laws that were passed by the state years ago that include a ban on private individuals from providing taxi services without the proper licenses.
The response from myself, Reyes, Briggs and Geeting was not dismissive of these concerns for they are valid. But press coverage on ride-sharing is not overly focused on the safety of these services, nor are many people in my age bracket using these services. Press from other cities does not suggest wide safety differences between ride-sharing services and traditional taxis. The fear of getting into a stranger’s car having them transport you somewhere that's tracked digitally also seems misplaced. Everyday Philadelphians hop into cabs driven by strangers. Though news of the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) allowing Uber and UberX across the entire state (except Philadelphia) had not hit the presses as of yesterday, state government doesn't appear overly concerned about safety either, provided Uber and UberX meet certain common sense criteria (that they have previously declined to give to PPA). As mentioned above, those criteria are part of what Jim Fye, head of PPA's taxi and limousine commission, want from UberX and what the state PUC has just required of Uber in the rest of the state:
"providing insurance information to drivers and compelling the drivers to notify their private insurance carriers, provide trip and financial data, require driver background checks and vehicle safety inspections."
If this were only about safety and the rule of law, PPA would not be threatening arrest of UberX drivers and fining them $1000 for operating outside their regulatory framework. Ride-share won't come to Philadelphia until either a legislative solution is found or a compromise between the PPA and UberX is found. This is because the Pennsylvania Utility Commission that sets taxi policy in the rest of the state, ceded control of that in Philadelphia to the PPA ten years ago. It was then that a taxi medallion system was set up with several goals in mind. Medallions were sold for almost $60,000 a piece and purchased both by individuals and companies seeking to provide taxi services. What's a medallion? It's effectively a tool that allows private companies and individuals to make money by providing a public taxi service provided certain conditions are met. Those include oversight like background checks and vehicle insurance. Limiting the supply of these medallions means Philadelphia has a lower density of cabs than quite a few other cities. This is partly done to make sure too many cabs aren't on the street at a given time so that drivers can make money. As medallions have increased in value (going from $60,000 to nearly $500,000) the thought was that companies, which rent medallions out to drivers on a daily basis for $70 a day, would use money gained in that process to invest back into their fleet of cars.
Medallions have failed on that front and a variety of others. Cab service has gotten better in the last ten years with touch-screen and credit card payment the norm rather than something drivers would practically accost you for doing previously. However, many cabs are still inefficient cars averaging just 12 miles to the gallon for an old Ford Crown Victoria, one of the most common vehicles used. They are kept on the road by taxi fleet managers that are maximizing their profits by minimizing their expenses. (Not to mention comparing UberX to ISIS) Medallions also have made frequent cab service outside of Center City largely untenable. The PUC does actually control cabs in Philadelphia outside of the core of the city on the periphery. Germantown Cab is an example of this. However, the 6 companies operating on Philadelphia’s periphery under PUC oversight, rather than PPA, are not allowed to make pick ups in certain areas of the city. They are known as partial rights taxis yet this still doesn’t seem enough.
As Philadelphia Magazine covered in an interview with one of Philly's cab drivers, the high cost of medallions have also meant that a driver needs to recoup their $70 often by driving for 12 hours a day. If a day is particularly slow, that driver may only net $20 for 12 hours of work once their medallion rental and gasoline costs are factored. Cabs are more plentiful in areas of higher density for economic reasons. A driver needs to field as many passengers over a day as possible to make money. Drivers go where the most people are living, working and visiting: Center City.
PPA acknowledged these limitations yesterday. Corrine O'Connor, Director of On-Street, mentioned that if she needs a cab in Northeast Philly where she lives, that she calls 45 minutes ahead of time. Services like UberBlack (the legal higher end limo services already operating under PPA oversight legally in Philly) and UberX (operating illegally) help address this issue. E-hailing via ride-sharing apps gives the user a more reliable timeframe of when a driver will arrive before they even request a ride. To that end Jim Nye, Director of Taxi and Limosine services for PPA, mentioned PPA is conducting a trial of an e-hailing app built by Verifone (the same company that provides taxi meters for the city) that all taxi companies will be required to support. The app is called Way2Ride and may be followed up by a custom PPA app in the future depending on the outcomes.
These are all positive developments for Philly's taxi industry but integrating e-hailing services for the city still does not address several key problems that UberX does. With medallions purposefully limited to ensure taxi companies can remain competitive, new PPA e-hailing services may give users a better eye on when to expect the taxi driver, but if the amount of drivers is held at today's amount, will wait times for folks like Corrine get any better? Medallion ownership is an investment for whoever owns one, but is it creating a system of fair employment for taxi drivers themselves? High costs for them don't suggest so given the amount of time and trips needed to recoup medallion fees over the course of a day.
UberX's lower cost of entry suggests drivers can recoup costs to hold commercial insurance, gas and fees paid to Uber to be integrated into their e-hailing system. UberX also opens up a pool of more drivers, including part-time drivers that could increase the supply of taxis on the road when it is needed. Higher charges for peak demand times should be monitored by the relevant agency, but UberX at least offers an option to get from point A to point B during peak times more quickly than cabs. If all taxis are taken during a particular increment of time a user just has to wait longer. They don't have the option to pay more and get faster service.
Yet perhaps the biggest problem medallions create for the PPA is that their stated goals of providing safe, reliable, high-quality taxi services are undermined by medallion holders themselves. The Pennsylvania Utility Commission has exempted the PPA from ride-sharing because the PUC believes the medallion system works. Then why is taxi service so slow and unreliable when requesting a cab? Why are taxi cars themselves so out of date and inefficient? Why do drivers need to drive so much to recoup money? And why has the agency been so slow to provide for WAV (handicapped) services? It all comes back to the medallion owners.
Uber and UberX have driven change, even as they have broken laws. Would the PPA have pursued e-hailing had they not been forced to by competition? As of today with Pennsylvania’s PUC setting requirements for all counties except Philadelphia to ensure safety guidelines are met, any further PPA-led resistance towards companies like UberX would suggest the agency is trying to protect medallion holders rather than invite improvements to Philadelphians personal mobility.
In our meeting yesterday all three PPA leaders echoed themes related to the rule of law and their concern for upholding it. They also mentioned the PPA will uphold any changes Harrisburg passes regarding ride-share affecting Philadelphia. Since safety issues should be addressed at the state level by this change in rule enacted by the PUC today, it seems pretty clear what the course of action is. Support ride-sharing in Philadelphia and prevent the state from carving out its largest city from new legislation to ensure safe, reliable, higher-quality mobility options that tear down barriers to entry rather than preserving a minority of medallion holders. Sign our petition to affirm your support.
Special thanks again to PPA leadership. It’s not everyday one is asked for their opinions and analysis on a fast-changing subject directly from leaders occupying roles integral to the public space. For that reason and many others, we hope to continue this spirit of collaboration rather than confrontation.