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KS: Wichita City Council Regulations Are Shutting Out Services Like Uber

A novel transportation service worked well for me on a recent trip to Washington, but Wichita doesn’t seem ready to embrace such innovation.

Have you heard of Uber and similar services?

Uber says it is “… evolving the way the world moves” according to their website:

By seamlessly connecting riders to drivers through our [smartphone] apps, we make cities more accessible, opening up more possibilities for riders and more business for drivers. From our founding in 2009 to our launches in over 70 cities today, Uber’s rapidly expanding global presence continues to bring people and their cities closer.

Uber works like this: Riders use their smartphones and the Uber app to request a ride. Drivers — who go through an application process and background check — acknowledge the request and pick up the rider. Once riders are dropped off at their destination, the Uber app handles the payment.

Being driven by Uber on the Washington Beltway.

Being driven by Uber on the Washington Beltway.

My first trip using Uber was from Dulles International Airport to my hotel in downtown Washington, a pretty long trip at nearly 27 miles. My Uber fare was $59.50. While that is expensive, my hotel’s website listed cab fare as $60. A private sedan would be $90, with reservations required.

At first glance, it seems like Uber is priced about the same as a regular taxicab. But there’s a big difference- the Uber fare is all-inclusive.

The way I elected to pay with Uber — which I suspect is probably the easiest way — was to store my credit card with the Uber system.  As we approached my destination, I asked my driver if I could add a tip through the Uber app. He said, “No, there’s no need to.”

As my driver transferred my luggage to the bellman, it seemed awkward to not offer a tip. But I confirmed with DC natives that’s the way it is with Uber: No tipping.

No tipping! That’s refreshing. I’m tired of cab drivers extorting tips. But you may be asking: What motivates Uber drivers to offer good service? One factor is that customers rate their drivers through the smartphone app.   It seems to me that Uber cares about providing good customer service, because a customer service representative followed up regarding my trip.  I’ve also noticed that my drivers seemed to like their job because they took pride in their clean cars and amenities.

There are several levels of Uber service. I used UberX, which is the least expensive. Other Uber services available in some cities include luxury cars or SUVs. The three cars I rode in were a Toyota Prius, a Lexus, and a Volvo.  All were impeccably clean — both the cars and the polite drivers. On all three rides I was offered a bottle of water. Two cars had magazines for me to read. One had a bowl of wrapped candy on the seat next to me. Drivers asked if I was comfortable with the setting of the air conditioning.  The drivers did not blast their radios, as has been the case with some of my cab trips.

In short, the service was great. While the Uber fare was the same as what my hotel estimated for a taxi fare, there was an important difference — no tip to the Uber driver. No need for cash, no need for a taxi driver to fumble with an awkward method of accepting credit cards.

A receipt from a trip using Uber. Click for larger version.

A receipt from a trip using Uber. Click for larger version.

You can also request a receipt from Uber on their website or through email. When I’ve asked a cab driver for a receipt, I’ve received a blank form.

I was also able to request an estimate of the fare through the app before I requested a driver. In my case, the estimate was $60.00, with the actual fare at $59.50.

Uber in Wichita?

Recently, Uber and Lyft (a similar service) started operations in Kansas City, Missouri.  As soon as these services became available to the public, the city council passed additional regulations that make it tougher — or impossible — for these services to operate.

Requesting an Uber driver.

Requesting an Uber driver.

In Wichita, it’s certain that Uber would be in violation of city ordinances. In 2012, the city passed new taxi regulations which erect and enforce substantial barriers to entering the taxicab market.

Here are some of the most restrictive:

  • Drivers must work for a company that has a central office staffed at least 40 hours per week.
  • A taxicab company must have a dispatch system operating 24 hours per day, seven days per week.
  • A service must have enough cabs to operate city-wide service, which the city has determined is ten cabs
  • A supervisor must be on duty at all times cabs are operating.

A dispatch system. That’s 1950s technology. Uber and similar services use smartphones. No dispatcher needed. No central office required. When you request a ride with the Uber app, you see a screen showing the available drivers nearby, along with an estimate of when the driver will arrive. You can watch the driver’s progress towards your pickup location. Can you do that with Wichita’s cab companies with their supervisors and dispatch systems?

Requesting a driver in Wichita using Uber. It's not available.

Requesting a driver in Wichita using Uber. It’s not available.

Wichita has implemented regulations regarding the hygiene and local knowledge of taxi drivers, and bureaucrats enforce these regulations.

Uber, on the other hand is regulated through customer ratings and tracked routes.  On every Uber receipt, there is a map of the route the driver took to deliver riders to their destinations.

If riders are concerned that drivers are padding fares by taking roundabout routes, that’s easy to see and resolve, and the Uber dashboard lets riders request a fare review. Can you imagine how difficult that would be in Wichita, to prove that your driver padded your fare or extorted a tip?

There’s a difference between regulation by bureaucrats and regulation by the customers.  Unfortunately, Wichita is served by the least effective, thanks to our city council.

Even though Wichita has regulations regarding the personal hygiene of drivers and the cleanliness of their vehicles, the city falls short in protecting drivers from violent crime.

There was one incident where a taxi driver raped a passenger shortly after the city passed the new regulations.

The Wichita Eagle reported:

[The driver] shouldn’t have received a taxi license but did because the new change banning registered sex offenders wasn’t communicated to staff members doing background checks on taxi driver applicants, city officials told The Eagle on Friday. The city has fixed the problem that led to the oversight in Spohn’s case, they said.

wichita-taxi regulationsThe council implemented regulations regarding customer service, but blamed the more serious offenses on a lack of oversight. Which leads us to wonder: Who is regulating the regulators? If an Uber driver committed such a crime, the company would be held liable and experience a loss of reputation. But how do we hold city bureaucrats accountable for their regulatory failures?

Going forward

Will Wichita consider relaxing taxicab regulations so that Wichitans might be served by a superior service like Uber? Not likely, I would say. The city council is proud of the new and restrictive regulations. The city is served by three taxi companies, two of which are owned by the same person. These companies are likely to lobby aggressively against allowing Uber and similar services in Wichita, just as taxi companies have done in other cities.

Recent discussion about the future of transit in Wichita have not included services like Uber.  At last week’s city council meeting, Councilwoman Janet Miller (District 6) spoke about aging baby boomers who either can’t drive, or don’t want to drive. Yet, she said, they have disposable income and want to spend it. These are ideal customers for Uber.

Uber and the like may not be a total replacement for traditional public transit systems, but it could help many people and provide necessary competition to the city’s taxicab fleet.  But if the city council has their way, it doesn’t seem likely that we’ll see Uber in Wichita soon, if at all.

Bob Weeks

Bob Weeks is a blogger for liberty and economic freedom in Kansas: http://wichitaliberty.org. Find him onTwitter: @bob_weeks

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