Arrival of Uber a pivotal moment for Wichita

Now that Uber has started service in Wichita, the city faces a decision. Will Wichita move into the future by embracing Uber, or remain stuck in the past?

Uber is a ridesharing service, although that word doesn’t describe it adequately. Here’s how it works. People apply to be Uber drivers. Uber does background checks to its satisfaction. Drivers must have a relatively late-model car. If Uber accepts drivers, they receive a smartphone with an app, and they’re in business.

Customers who want to use Uber must have a smartphone. Then, customers create an account and make payment arrangements such as credit card, Google Wallet, or PayPal.

Being driven by Uber on the Washington Beltway.
Being driven by Uber on the Washington Beltway.
When customers want a ride, they use the Uber smartphone app to make a request. A driver accepts the request and picks up the passenger. At the end of the ride, payment is made through the Uber app. There is no tipping.

After the ride, passengers rate drivers. (Drivers rate passengers, too.) Passengers receive a receipt via email that shows the route taken on a map.

I’ve used Uber a few times in Washington and was pleased with the experience: No extortion of tips, polite and courteous drivers, clean cars, offers of bottled water, a bowl of wrapped candy on the seat beside me, and magazines in front of me.

People like Uber. Especially the young millennials I know that live in cities where Uber operates. These are people that Wichita is desperately trying to appeal to. So you may be thinking “isn’t it great that Uber has expanded to Wichita?”

Uber in Wichita is good if you value innovation and progress. But not everyone does. There will be a scuffle.

Available Uber drivers on a Sunday morning in Kansas City. There were no Uber drivers available in Wichita at the time.
Available Uber drivers on a Sunday morning in Kansas City. There were no Uber drivers available in Wichita at the time.
In 2012 Wichita passed new taxi regulations. They create substantial barriers to entering the taxicab market. Some of the most restrictive include these: A central office, staffed at least 40 hours per week; a dispatch system operating 24 hours per day, seven days per week; enough cabs to operate city-wide service, which the city has determined is ten cabs; and a supervisor on duty at all times cabs are operating.

These regulations protect Wichita’s existing traditional taxi industry. There are three taxi companies in Wichita, with two having the same ownership. Already one owner is speaking out against Uber. The public agenda for Tuesday’s meeting of the Wichita City Council lists a citizen speaking on the topic “Taxi Cab Insurance.” I imagine this speaker is inspired to speak on this topic due to Uber’s arrival.

The taxi companies that benefit from the restrictive Wichita regulations are likely to fight to keep their competitive barriers in place. The question is this: Does Uber fall under these regulations?

So far, the city’s position is this, according to the Wichita Eagle: “From the government side, interim City Attorney Sharon Dickgrafe said Uber is not a taxi service because the private cars its drivers use aren’t equipped with taxi meters.” (Ride-sharing app begins offering Wichitans a lift, August 28, 2014)

I’ll expect the city’s position to change when the city realizes that Uber cars do have meters. Not clunky old-fashioned meters, but meters running on smartphones that track journeys using GPS. After all, Uber charges for its trips just like traditional cabs: A fee to enter the cab, and then charges based on distance traveled, and in some cases, time. (In Wichita, Uber charges a base fare of $2.00 plus $0.20 per minute and $1.65 per mile, plus $1.00 safe rides fee. There is a $5.00 minimum. When you request a ride, Uber can give you a fare quote.)

The overhaul of Wichita taxi regulations in 2012 was partly inspired by the perception that drivers were not projecting a good image for the city. Now there are regulations in addition to the above that require standards of dress and hygiene, and “knowledge of the geography of the city and the area, and knowledge of local public and tourist destinations and attractions.” Cabbies must take a customer service class delivered by city bureaucrats.

Taxi driver was on sex offender registrySo Wichita has many regulations for the taxi industry. But as I explain in more detail below, the city admitted that it failed to enforce a really important regulation: Convicted sex offenders shouldn’t be taxi drivers. But through the city’s mistake, one such man was granted a taxi driver license. He’s now serving a lengthy prison sentence for raping a passenger.

The standard argument against Uber is that it is unfair because Uber doesn’t have to follow laws and regulations. But Uber is regulated by a very powerful force: The marketplace. Remember, passengers rate Uber drivers. Can you rate your traditional Wichita taxi driver? What if you felt that your traditional taxi driver was padding the fare by taking a roundabout route? Uber trips are monitored by GPS. Passenger receipts have a map that shows the route taken, which can be the basis for a fare review.

The traditional taxi industry complains that Uber doesn’t have to follow follow laws and regulations. That’s nonsense. Uber drivers must follow traffic laws. Uber drivers and passengers must observe the most fundamental of laws: “Don’t hit people, and don’t take their stuff.” Beyond that, the taxi industry laws and regulations are from a bygone era. The traditional taxi industry is comfortable with these laws and regulations. The taxi companies can cope with them, and they make it difficult for competition to form. The purpose of these laws and regulations is not to benefit passengers, in most cases. They exist for the benefit of the taxicab industry.

But there is a transformation underway. Wichita can stop it if it wants to, but that would be a mistake.

The city says it is considering whether this industry — Uber — needs regulation. The question I have is this: Has the City of Wichita earned the right to regulate taxis? The answer is no. The city has created regulations that prop up the near-monopoly of traditional taxi companies and stifle innovation, but failed to protect passengers from being raped by convicted sex offenders.

Beyond that, the city has to decide whether it can back off its heavy-handed regulation and allow market-based innovation to thrive. The city has to decide in favor of customers or the traditional taxi industry and its near-monopoly ownership. It’s a decision that will let us learn a lot about the future direction of Wichita.

Regulation failure leads to tragedy in Wichita

wichita-taxi regulationsWhen the Wichita City Council passed new taxicab regulations in 2012, the focus was on dirty cabs and slovenly drivers who were not acting as goodwill ambassadors for the city. Mayor Carl Brewer said he was “tired” of hearing complaints about drivers.

So the council passed new regulations regarding taxicabs, including the requirement that drivers attend customer service training provided by Go Wichita Convention and Visitors Bureau. Other regulations determine taxicab office staffing levels and level of supervision.

Bryon Scott Spohn, a taxi driver accused of raping a passenger.

But something very important slipped through the cracks. The Wichita Eagle has reported the city didn’t competently enforce regulations designed to protect passenger safety:

A Wichita taxicab driver now in prison for raping a passenger last year shouldn’t have been allowed to operate a taxi in the first place.

That’s because at the time Bryon Scott Spohn applied for a taxi driver’s license in late 2012, he was on a state sex offender registry for possession of child pornography. A city ordinance that went into effect in July 2012 says a taxi driver’s license shall not be issued to anyone who “is now or has ever been registered as a sexual offender with any state, county or local government.”

Spohn 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. Taxi driver in prison for raping passenger was on sex offender registry, March 3, 2014

The regulations regarding customer service training were implemented. But the really important regulations? Lack of oversight, says the city.

I wonder: Who is regulating the regulators?

One Comment

  • I have used taxi service in Wichita and many major cities. For many reasons, the big cities are far better equipped to provide service than Wichita. Recently, while in Chicago, I was able to use Uber. As the author described, the vehicle was late model and clean, driver well groomed and polite, and was able to pick me up within minutes. It was a very good experience. (I have actually used it again.) Uber would indeed be a viable alternative, especially for the younger generation.

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