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Taxis desire parity with emerging ridesharing companies

ST. LOUIS – Basil Rudawsky’s business, the St. Louis County Cab Company, has been in his family for 82 years, predating World War II, but he still found ways to make sure the bill kept with the times. Since 2010, the company has had an app to order a cab online and the following year they introduced text ordering and text confirmations.

However, the halcyon days of the yellow cars with checker patterns on the side have mutated into the modern-day culture of ridesharing companies and the “gig economy” as companies like Uber and Lyft continue to expand across the country.

Rudawsky is still confident his cab company can compete, so long as there is parity between cab companies and transportation networking companies (TNCs). However, he believes a bill offered by Sen. Bob Onder does not accomplish that despite attempts by Missouri’s taxicab companies to alter the bill.

Basil Rudawsky

“We presented him with language that would give total and parity with his Uber bill without touching the TNCs,” Rudawsky says. “We met with him and he said ‘I’m a Republican I’m all for deregulation,’ but yet he’s not following through on what he said because he’s made no modification of behalf of the taxi industry.”

The legislation at issue is Kirk Mathews’ HB 130, carried by Onder now in the Senate, which would create a statewide framework for TNCs in Missouri. It passed overwhelmingly through the House 140-16 after some negotiations in the 2016 off-session to modify the bill to the liking of both the TNCs and the St. Louis Taxicab Commission.

Taxicab companies, however, still feel left out. Rudawsky says the new bill ensures TNCs enjoy fewer burdensome regulations to which taxicab companies will still need to adhere. Namely taxicabs still have stringent regulations like regular vehicle inspections, the payment of license fees for both vehicles drivers, annual physicals for their drivers, special paint colors for their cars, a fleet of vehicles that are not too old, and an annual licensing process. TNCs do not need to follow those regulations at all, which Rudawsky says puts cabs companies and TNCs on a starkly uneven playing field.

The current oversight over cabs in St. Louis is the St. Louis Taxicab Commission, which maintains the stringent regulations on St. Louis’ cab companies. Rudawsky said he did not mind the level of regulation cab companies currently have because certain industries, his included, need those regulations for public safety and consumer protections. However, he finds it difficult to justify different rules for taxicabs and TNCs.

“The bottom line is in order for us to compete, we have to have the same freedoms,” he says. “If we’re going to have parity and we’re going to deregulate, there’s no reason for taxis to not be regulated with the same rules through the same department.”

That department would be the Department of Revenue.

Onder RTW
Sen. Bob Onder in 2015

However, Onder believes taxicab companies already have some competitive advantages over ridesharing companies, including conspicuous labeling that can be construed as advertising (the yellow and checker patterns), street hailing, allowing customers to pay with cash and the ability to take phone calls. Uber, Lyft and the like do not have any of those qualities, so Onder argues simply tacking on taxicabs to have the same regulations in Mathews’ Uber bill would tilt a competitive advantage towards taxicabs.

“I’m all for achieving parity as best we can, but you cannot have strict parities between apples and oranges,” he says. “Taxis and TNCs are fundamentally different animals.”

The Metropolitan Taxicab Commission also plays a large role in negotiations over the legislation, but if the bill passes in its current form Rudawsky says the commission may no longer play a role. Uber has operated in St. Louis since 2015 despite regulations in place by the commission that should prevent it from operating, but no one has enforced those laws. Rudawsky says his company has suffered because Uber has essentially operated as they pleased in St. Louis for almost two years while he still adheres to the commission’s laws.

“We’re trying to take the high road to continue and obey the law, but it would be just as easy for us to do what they did and ignore [the laws] and the taxicab commission would cease to exist in that way,” Rudawsky says. “If it’s an agency that’s no longer required, then maybe it shouldn’t exist.”

Adam McNutt, the president of Laclede Cab company in St. Louis, said that the industry’s first choice would be to ensure ridesharing companies and cab companies operated under the same regulations and under the commission. But in a worst case scenario, if the Uber bill passes without language that the taxicab industry sees as helpful, then there would need to be changes.

“At that point, we would have to sit down with the commission… and try to get some of the regulations rolled back or get some fees lowered,” McNutt says.

Onder, however, adds there is another solution for taxicab companies: they could convert to a TNC model of business or start a new corresponding TNC business to compete on that field. But McNutt rejects Onder’s initial argument that taxis and Uber cars are fundamentally different, are apples and oranges. He believes that a ride-for-hire service is a ride-for-hire service.

“If those rules are good and you like them and you want Uber to have those rules, then what is the difference for taxis to have those same rules? I’ve never gotten a good answer [on that question],” McNutt says. “I just want to compete fairly.”

All of that could be rendered moot, however, if Sen. Paul Wieland maintains his filibuster on the bill. However, Onder said negotiations had progressed and he was optimistic the bill would get to the floor in the final weeks of debate.