3 inspectors to enforce rules on hundreds of ride-service drivers
Seattle Times staff reporter
Seattle City Council members spent almost a year studying the nuances of the taxi and for-hire industry before a majority of them voted Thursday night in favor of limiting how many people could drive for Lyft, uberX and Sidecar.
What they haven’t spent as much time talking about publicly is how the city would enforce any of the new rules it wants those companies to follow.
If the proposal five of nine council members voted for at Thursday’s taxi committee meeting is approved at a regular council meeting, the city’s enforcement officers would be in charge of making sure each transportation network company (TNC) has only 150 drivers on the road at any given time.
The enforcement officers would also be responsible for checking on an unlimited number of drivers who would be eligible to contract with the companies if they apply for proper licensing.
Lyft, uberX and Sidecar have never told the city exactly how many drivers they work with, but each has said there are hundreds. The city would eventually find out because the proposal requires that the drivers apply for a TNC vehicle endorsement to use their personal cars.
Right now, the city has three enforcement officers watching more than 800 taxi and for-hire vehicles licensed to work in the city, and they are constantly on the lookout for unlicensed cabs. They could soon have more taxis to check on because the council’s proposal would also create 200 new taxi licenses over the next two years — the city’s first taxi-license increase in at least 23 years.
Seattle’s Department of Finance and Administrative Services (FAS) has asked for three more “licenses and standards inspectors” so that the city has a “minimally acceptable level of street enforcement.”
The council has created a fiscal note allowing for three additional officers, but it hasn’t been established how the jobs would be funded, according to council spokesman Dan Nolte.
The FAS request was made when the council’s taxi committee was proposing a cap of 300 TNC drivers and has not been updated since the committee approved an unlimited number of TNC drivers.
Before the popularity of TNCs caught on in Seattle last spring, enforcement officers were already struggling to keep an eye on the city’s existing taxi and for-hire industry, according to FAS.
Of 280 undercover trips the city’s three-person inspection team was able to take last year — in taxis, for-hire vehicles, limos and TNC vehicles — 240 resulted in enforcement actions.
The FAS document requesting the increase in enforcement officers said that taxis typically make over 5 million trips a year.
“This is not an effective level of enforcement,” the FAS document says of last year’s efforts.
Before TNCs with their popular phone apps for contacting them threatened the taxi industry last year, taxi owners and drivers already complained the city did not sufficiently regulate flat-rate for-hire cars, which are not legally allowed to accept street hails.
Through the summer of 2013, taxi advocates were still protesting against flat-rate for-hire cars. But by the end of 2013, both taxi and for-hire drivers were supporting each other as one team against TNCs, which have operated without any city regulations over the last year.
Councilmember Nick Licata has been supportive of placing driver caps on TNCs, but is also waiting to see how the council will ensure TNCs are following city regulations.
“The weak link in the current proposal is the same problem we face in other areas of enforcement,” Licata said Friday. “Enforcement can’t be complaint-based. It has to be proactive to be effectual.”
The council also has to determine how officers could ensure each TNC has a maximum of 150 drivers on the road at any given time.
“The technology can quickly identify how many cars are out there at any one time,” Licata said. “But there’s a question of how do you monitor that from outside the company.”
Lyft and uberX did not comment Friday on whether it would allow the city to look at its live driver-data system. Sidecar said it would not release that information.
The companies don’t have much of a track record of transparency with the city so far. In addition to repeatedly refusing to share their exact driver population with the city, the companies have refused to share their master insurance policies.
The companies also have shown they’re willing to take the risk of breaking the law if it’s unclear whether enforcement action will be taken. Until the city passes the proposal, all three are considered illegal for-hire companies by the city.
They also ignored cease-and-desist letters in California before the state legalized them last year.
Under the council committee proposal, drivers for all taxis, for-hire vehicles and TNC vehicles would go through the same level of training in order to legally drive commercially.
To drive for a TNC with a personal car, a driver would also have to apply for a TNC vehicle endorsement, which would require a vehicle inspection.
At Thursday night’s taxi-committee meeting, council members voted in favor of revising a penalty for any driver providing passenger pickup services without proper licensing or endorsement. The first offense would be a civil infraction with a fine of up to $1,000. The second offense would be a criminal misdemeanor with a fine of up to $1,000.
The full council is expected to vote on TNC regulations on March 10 at its regular meeting. The proposal needs six votes to be veto-proof.
If the current proposal is passed, it would go into effect 30 days after Mayor Ed Murray signed it into law.
Alexa Vaughn: 206-464-2515 or firstname.lastname@example.org On Twitter @AlexaVaughn.