HOUSTON -- A proposal that could dramatically change how Houstonians hail rides in cars – a lucrative business zealously guarded by long-established taxicab companies – drew a crowd of cab drivers and lobbyists into a standing-room-only committee meeting at Houston City Hall.
If the plan is adopted, Houstonians could use smartphone apps to call for rides from private citizens using services like Uber and Lyft. That’s triggered a high-stakes political and public relations fight with the taxicab industry, which has legendary political influence at City Hall.
Cab companies argue it’s an economic threat to an industry that’s invested in an infrastructure offering universal taxi service to all Houstonians, including the poor and disabled. Private drivers, they say, will concentrate in lucrative areas like nightclub districts and avoid low-income neighborhoods where many people use cabs for routine rides to places like grocery stores and doctors’ offices.
“There’s not going to be anybody who going to want to serve your district,” Roman Martinez, the president and CEO of Yellow Cab, said to a councilmember representing mostly low-income neighborhoods.
The ride-sharing services have been rolling out in other cities across the nation. City officials who’ve studied the issue say taxicab companies would probably be hurt by the plan, but they’d probably adapt. And they say that in other cities more people have called for rides than when cabs offered their only option.
Under the proposal, private car drivers offering rides would be required to meet the same insurance and background check requirements as taxi and limousine drivers. It would also impose several new rules on all vehicles for hire – including taxicabs – such as requiring them to accept credit cards, allowing them to charge for “no shows” and mandating they carry fire extinguishers.
Once in a while, something comes up for debate at Houston City Hall that affects so much special interest money it seems every lobbyist and political consultant in town gets a piece of the action. Both sides pack city council chambers with supporters, often wearing matching T-shirts, leaving nothing but standing room for anybody unlucky enough to have other business before city council.
When restaurant owners and food services companies competed for a lucrative airport concession contract a few years ago, it was hard to find an open parking space around City Hall. When Southwest Airlines challenged United Airlines by lobbying for an international terminal at Hobby Airport , both sides packed meetings with so many employees the council chamber looked like one of those circus cars crammed with an impossibly large collection of clowns.
Such is the fight over ride-sharing services, which challenge the hegemony of Houston’s politically-entrenched taxicab industry. The plan triggered lively debate among council members, who’ve been heavily lobbied by both sides of the issue.
Some council members pointed out that private cars offering rides wouldn’t be required to provide service to disabled people. Taxicab companies don’t have to offer services to the disabled, either, but Yellow Cab does anyway, partly to service a contract with Metro. Either way, critics on city council point out that allowing private drivers to avoid serving the disabled may violate the mayor’s proposed anti-discrimination ordinance.
“I do believe this whole thing reeks of hypocrisy,” said Councilmember Mike Laster.
The proposal is expected to go before Houston City Council for a vote next month.