Look Both Ways Before Regulating

I try never to repeat myself. It’s a big world out there. There’s always a new story to be told, if only you train yourself to watch for it.

We all repeat ourselves too much. It’s unfortunate for society and maybe for our species that smart people are better at repeating themselves than the rest of us. Exactly the people who should be thinking new thoughts get stuck in a rut, telling us their old thoughts. This may have been true even before they shackled themselves to Powerpoint presentations.

I try never to repeat myself, out of fear that it could become a habit. I can’t bear the thought of what I could miss then. That’s why I try never to repeat myself.

But I wrote a column five years ago that bears some repeating.

I had witnessed the efficiency of “swarm intelligence” during a trip to Sulaymaniyah, Iraq and Amman, Jordan, where (to my eye) approximately one third of the cars on the road were seeking riders. So I asked that Eugene deregulate its taxi services.

I stated then that the quickest way to get Americans out of their cars would be to get them into other people’s cars. I reasoned that offering people the convenience of car travel without the hassle of car ownership might loosen the stranglehold personal vehicles has on our culture.

Not only would it reduce traffic and curb pollution, it also would provide an easy way to make a few extra dollars for anyone who wanted to drive for hire.

To quote my half-decade-younger self, think of it “less like a limousine service and more like codified hitch-hiking. Where better than Eugene to test a safer version of the transportation choice of the 1960s?” I thought that GPS systems and cell phones might make it possible.

And now it has. Uber, Lyft, Sidecar and other smartphone entrepreneurs are connecting cars, drivers, and riders. It’s all part of what Tom Friedman has been calling “the sharing economy.”

You know it’s working, because taxi companies are objecting. Seattle last month became the first American city to impose limits on ride-share offerings. Other cities, who employ plenty of smart people, will soon begin repeating what Seattle has done.

My request now to the smart people who work for our cities is simply this. Do nothing. Don’t follow (repeat) your big-city colleagues. Stay out of it.

It’s easy to do that right now, because these ride-share programs haven’t yet caught on here, although Uber is currently accepting driver applications for Eugene. Sharing is the future, and we know the future is coming — we just don’t know when.

I understand that certifying taxis and drivers keeps citizens safe — from bad brakes to armed robberies. I’m not saying that safety isn’t worth the money. Just let people choose.

Hitch-hiking was always dangerous, but it was economical. Each of us made our own choices about how much risk we could take. We do it every time we cross a street without the protection of government-certified walk signs. Life is risky.

My stockbroker must remind me with every trade that my funds are not regulated or protected by the FDIC and that my risk includes the possibility of loss of principal. He informs. I decide. And somewhere inside, I feel like a grown-up.

Once car-share programs arrive in Eugene, one of three things will happen.

  • Riders will prefer regulated taxis and the ride-share programs won’t attract drivers.
    Riders will favor ride-share options, ending regulated taxi services.
    Taxi companies will adapt their prices and practices to fend off competition.

None of these outcomes is horrible enough to merit a pre-emptive widening of regulations, except for one little detail. If the public chooses thrift over safety, government regulators could find themselves face-to-face with citizens who don’t want their regulations.

Once driver-for-hire becomes unfettered, the public might wonder about traffic impact studies, zoning regulations, meat inspections, and on and on. People might clamor for fewer protections.

Regulators fear doing nothing. They might then be asked to repeat themselves.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs here. His 2009 column about deregulating taxis can be found at http://www.dksez.com/607.