I frequently travel on business to Jacksonville and have used local cabs to get to and from the airport. On a recent trip, the cab I was dispatched can only be described as less-than-suitable. It was old, smelled like cigarette smoke, the air conditioning didn’t work, and I had to dig between seat cushions, assorted crumbs and trash to find a broken seat-belt locking mechanism.
After picking me up, the driver asked if I minded if he stopped for a second to pick up some items that someone had left out with their garbage. He collected his new-found treasures and placed them in the trunk on top of my suitcase.
My prior experiences with cabs in Jacksonville haven’t been much better, and my occasional cab encounters in Tampa have been similar.
Last week in Jacksonville, I tried Uber. My car showed up early. It was a late-model sedan. It was clean. Everything from the power windows, air conditioning and seat belts all worked.
Even better, the driver was a delightful man who knew how to carry on a conversation using flawless English, with just a slight Sudanese accent. His name was Abbas. He came to the U.S. as a political refugee from Sudan 10 years ago. When he arrived, he had little more than the shirt on his back. A decade later, he has a college education, owns a fleet of 10 cars and employs over a dozen people.
Abbas is an American success story with deep lessons about the value of a good education, picking yourself up from nothing and turning yourself into something, through hard work and determination.
He has learned a lot about American government and burdensome regulations by helping with Uber’s fight in Tallahassee to break the monopoly that traditional cabs have in most markets.
Hillsborough County is one of those markets. In fact, we’re one of the worst — one where taxicabs are governed by the Public Transportation Commission (PTC), a unique board authorized by state statute that no other county in the state has, or apparently needs.
The PTC heavily regulates vehicles for hire, with dubious effectiveness. Among other things, the commission has prohibited the use of small, energy-efficient cars if they aren’t a full four-door-style sedan.
They have also put the brakes on Uber and Lyft by threatening to enforce a PTC requirement that dictates to consumers that they must pay a minimum fare of $50 per ride for “high-end” vehicles.
Shortchanging consumers by trampling on free markets and stifling competition by defending the status quo is hardly a worthy cause. But that hasn’t stopped Republican County Commissioner and PTC Chairman Victor Crist, who is the biggest cheerleader of the PTC’s burdensome paperwork, costly regulations and protection of a stale monopoly, from trying to keep Tampa riders in a dingy cab.
Opponents of 21st century ride-sharing companies claim those companies’ drivers don’t carry enough liability coverage. However, Uber says it maintains excess insurance coverage of $1 million for all of its drivers. Meanwhile, those protected taxicabs need only carry bodily injury liability coverage of $125,000 per person, $250,000 per occurrence, according to the Florida Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles website.
Misinformation in the name of “consumer protection” continues at the expense of consumer choice. These efforts persist because the traditional taxicabs don’t like competition. If competition existed, cab operators would have to invest in cars that don’t force you to take a bath after riding in them, and hire drivers who are courteous and speak fluent English. It’s easier to just make campaign contributions.
Ironically, at the PTC’s March meeting, Crist recommended updating the photos in a draft of a new PTC brochure “with current model vehicles to represent the industry.” He must have been thinking of Uber and Lyft, not Tampa area cabs, when he made the suggestion.
Make no mistake, the for-hire transportation business is changing thanks to Uber and Lyft, despite the politicians and the bureaucracies they dream up.
I imagine if they were alive during the emergence of the electric light bulb, Crist and his ilk would have sought to protect the livelihood of a few candle makers at the expense of a public that wanted electric light.
Chris Ingram is an opinion columnist, political consultant, and political analyst for Bay News 9. Follow him on Twitter @IrreverentView.