In My Opinion

Fred Grimm: Miami’s car service plan is new twist to an old story

 
 
Over the past few days, the county says it has impounded three automobiles belonging to drivers for Lyft, which began offering rides to passengers two weeks ago via a smartphone application. The cars were taken Wednesday and Thursday as part of a sting operation by the Miami-Dade Police Department.
Over the past few days, the county says it has impounded three automobiles belonging to drivers for Lyft, which began offering rides to passengers two weeks ago via a smartphone application. The cars were taken Wednesday and Thursday as part of a sting operation by the Miami-Dade Police Department.

fgrimm@MiamiHerald.com

Everything about Lyft and Uber, those upstart outlaws who’ve been roiling the local taxi industry and flouting county regulations, sounds so new and daring. Especially this notion of civil disobedience as a business plan.

Both app-based companies have continued dispatching unlicensed drivers to pick up passengers who hail them via smart phone, despite threats from county regulators. Last week, Miami-Dade police busted three unlicensed Lyft drivers and confiscated their cars.

The confrontation seems born of our high tech age: Miami-Dade resisting 21st century technological innovations to protect a creaky, inefficient but politically influential taxicab industry.

Except it sounds so familiar. In 1991, with considerably more fervor, the county went after another kind of outlaw interloper.

Swarms of unlicensed vans and mini-buses had been encroaching on county bus routes and stealing away passengers. The county calculated that jitneys cost the county bus system $400,000 a year in lost fares.

Cops started issuing $100 citations. When that failed to discourage drivers, police called in the tow trucks. Some 340 unlicensed jitneys were seized in 1991. At times, the confrontations turned nearly riotous.

Of course, outlaw jitneys – often crowded, hot and dingy – were decidedly low tech. The basic business plan had drivers swooping in on bus stops and scarfing up passengers at $1 a head before some competitor beat them to it. In July 1992, a pedestrian was killed when a jitney driver, apparently trying to get the jump on another jitney, barged through a red light. He had no insurance, no taxi permit, no chauffeur’s license, no drivers license. And public outrage sustained the anti-jitney campaign for a few more weeks.

That ended abruptly on Aug. 24, 1992, when Hurricane Andrew devastated the southern reaches of the county and led to FEMA hiring fleets of those outlaw jitneys to haul reconstruction workers.

The county commission had only wrested county-wide control of the taxi industry after taxi magnate Ziggy Zilber took on a wildly inefficient system in which individual cities regulated cabs. Taxis without permits issued by a particular city could deliver passengers but were barred from picking up new customers within the city limits.

Jackson Rip Holmes, a Coral Gables commercial property broker, told me via e-mail how, back in the 1970s when he was working his way through law school as a cabbie for a Zilber company licensed only in Coral Gables, the boss decided to flout the regulations.

Holmes said Zilber told his Gables cabbies that if they picked up passengers in Miami, “he would pay our tickets and for attorneys to represent us in court and otherwise indemnify us for breaking the law, in furtherance of his goal of usurping control of taxicab regulation by cities, and transferring it to (Miami-) Dade County.”

Lyft seems to be reprising Zilber’s 40-year-old tactics. Last week, the app company said it was covering the fines, legal fees and expenses incurred by drivers snared in this latest crackdown on rebellious car services.

What sounded so novel was just a new twist to an old Miami-Dade story.

Read more Fred Grimm stories from the Miami Herald

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