Council to take up taxi/Uber/for-hire driver issues in early 2018

Yesterday afternoon Council President Bruce Harrell let it be known that he intends to look at a series of issues related to taxis, for-hire drivers, and Transportation Network Companies such as Uber and Lyft. His intention would be to bring forward legislation in the first quarter of 2018.

In his Education, Equity and Governance Committee, Harrell led a discussion of the specific issues he is looking to include in a “work plan” for the topic. He walked in with a list of ten already in-hand:

  1. Data collection. Previous attempts to legislate the TNC industry had several reporting components, and the TNC have pushed back in the courts by claiming that much of that information is “trade secret.” Harrell claimed his intent was to establish a collaborative process through which the city could receive enough data to shape its policies without revealing trade secrets, by “shaping” the request to avoid trade secrets and/or using a third-party to handle the data so that it’s not subject to public document requests.
  2. Fair compensation for drivers. Harrell said his intent is to ensure that drivers are being paid a living wage, and not held at the mercy of a large, powerful corporation. One of the challenges is that taxis, for-hire drivers, and TNC drivers all have different compensation structures, so it’s difficult to make an apples-to-oranges comparison.
  3. A regional standardized City and County regulatory and licensing system for taxicabs, for-hire vehicles, and TNC drivers and vehicles. Seattle and King County license taxis independently, which leads to the issue of “deadheading” when for example a Seattle-licensed taxi can take someone from Seattle to Bellevue, but can’t pick up someone in Bellevue for transport back to Seattle. TNC drivers, because they work outside any existing licensing scheme, don’t have such limitations. Harrell is in favor of consolidating the dual-licensing system.
  4. Consolidation and leveling of operating fees in SMC 6.310.150. The Seattle Municipal Code has a long list of fees that legacy taxis are required to pay, a list that has grown by accretion for forty years. Harrell would like to look at consolidating, and possibly restructuring, the fees. Council member O’Brien also expressed a desire to look at what happens when a taxi is idled for some number of months of the year, as happens more frequently in the winter when business is slow in Seattle (and Uber and Lyft take a big chunk of the remaining business. Currently, taxi license owners are required to operate year-round, and if they go inactive they must pay all the back fees in order to reactivate. O’Brien would like to investigate whether there is a better model for turning on and off a taxi license if that’s the reality of the business today.
  5. Voluntary conversion of flat-rate for-hire vehicles to metered taxicabs. This is a request from some for-hire drivers.
  6. Adjusting taxicab and for-hire vehicle licensing requirements to allow drivers additional time to travel to visit family overseas. Currently drivers can lose their license if they do not operate their vehicle for a certain number of days in a 12-month period, which constrains immigrant drivers from visiting their families abroad. However, TNC drivers don’t operate under that requirement and have much more flexibility. Harrell wants to look at what’s equitable.
  7. Reviewing current restrictions and financial obligations for drivers and owner-operators in the taxicab and for-hire vehicle industry. This ties in with several of the points above.
  8. Reviewing insurance standards and impacts on taxicabs, TNCs, and for-hire vehicles. Again, Harrell would like to level the playing field with Uber and Lyft drivers, while ensuring that passengers are protected.
  9. Establishing a bill of rights for drivers and a bill of rights for passengers.
  10. Reviewing changing the Seattle – King County Taxicab Advisory Commission to a new commission for the taxicab, TNC, and for-hire industry.

Council member Gonzalez added another issue to the list, one that was raised by drivers during the meeting’s public comment period: looking at the parking/waiting/restroom facilities available to drivers while on the job so as to ensure that drivers can take breaks when they need to and aren’t being forced to make decisions that put themselves, passengers and other travelers at risk.

O’Brien added another item: setting a minimum rate for Uber and Lyft drivers. O’Brien was the main sponsor of the collective-bargaining ordinance for TNC drivers, but he noted that it’s tied up in litigation and in his view still a couple of years  until it is fully resolved. In the meantime, he is concerned about whether drivers are making enough. He also pointed out that the city sets rates for the taxi industry so that drivers are not paid so little that they make dangerous decisions and cut corners.

Ideally, Harrell would like to get legislation done in the first quarter of 2018. However, addressing all these issues will involve rewriting most of the existing Municipal Code chapter on taxis, and the Council’s central staff were skeptical as to whether it could realistically be done in three months. Harrell was undeterred, though, and impatient with the lack of support from the Executive Branch in 2017 on this. He said he is willing to consider bringing in additional outside resources as necessary to move fast.

Harrell and O’Brien expect to bring a resolution to the full council at its first meeting in January that codifies this work plan.