New technologies, introduced correctly, bring us amazing opportunities for better service and modern conveniences. Like everything, however, when looking at new technologies we must also be sure people’s basic civil rights and the safety of the riding public are protected and that we don’t lose sight of what’s best for our livelihoods and our community.
For more than 30 years, I’ve been directly involved in Miami’s taxicab industry. We’re proud to serve as couriers of the world’s most precious cargo — our neighbors, their families and, of course, the more than 13 million visitors to South Florida each year. Over that time, the industry and the County Commission have worked together on how to provide safe and effective transportation options. On Tuesday, the commission is considering several reforms to our industry’s core regulations. One change is a welcome addition that will bring driver safety and improve customer experiences, while another is well-intended but could ruin the very thing it’s trying to improve.
Commissioner Juan Zapata is to be applauded for his work championing a credit-card ordinance. If passed, this will bring uniform, secure credit-card readers to every taxicab in Miami-Dade County. Best of all, these readers will be installed free of charge — no cost to consumers, to drivers or to county residents. They will also provide increased security, as each will have a built-in GPS tracking system, allow drivers to carry much less cash, and guarantee that the amount charged is automatically the same amount on the fare machine. Zapata’s credit card ordinance is an example how new equipment can be added into the existing system to mend, not end, an industry.
A separate ordinance would allow unregulated new companies with no South Florida connection to come in and provide transportation booking in a smartphone app. It’s important to note that South Florida taxicab companies are already using this technology today. Free apps like Flywheel and Taxi Magic allow you to use your smartphone to instantly connect to a local professional licensed taxicab driver. So why is a new ordinance needed for app-based transportation, and why is this proposed ordinance so dangerous?
The special loophole this ordinance would create would exempt these out-of-town companies from the same regulations that would remain for the taxicab industry. These include the requirement that a driver take you anywhere in the county you request, the mandate that the taxicab carry insurance, a requirement that taxicab companies provide transportation to disabled passengers and any licensed service animal, and even basic driver training requirements.
Indeed, even a guaranteed fare, set by the county to ensure uniformity and consistency, is threatened by this new sweetheart deal. Taxicabs would still have a government-mandated fare, but new entrants could charge whatever they wish, so long as they post the rate hikes somewhere on their own websites. The proposal as written would allow an unlimited number of these new unregulated cars to flood the market.
If new companies are granted special exemption for open entry and take only the most lucrative customers, thousands of South Florida taxicab drivers will eventually be driven into bankruptcy. Over the past several decades I’ve come to know my fellow drivers — these are people who see owning their own small business as the American dream. When they paid the thousands of dollars of county licensing fees to start those small businesses, who could have known the county would consider changing the rules and pulling the rug out right from under them and their families?
In other markets, new tech-based companies come in and work within the existing civil rights and economic guarantees provided by the existing system. The credit-card ordinance shows new technology can help. Let’s join together to point out where advances might lead our community in the wrong direction.
Diego Feliciano is president of the South Florida Taxicab Association.