The chief taxi regulator in Los Angeles tried to put his boot to the throat of upstart Web-based transportation services Uber, Sidecar and Lyft this week, directing them to stop picking up passengers in the city. The problem is, he doesn't have the authority to do so. Rather than operating conventional taxis, the three companies offer innovative ride-for-hire services that the state Public Utilities Commission oversees. In fact, the PUC has signed agreements with all three that govern their operations. And the main danger the companies pose at this point is to cabbies' hold on what used to be a captive market.
Uber, Sidecar and Lyft may be disrupting the cab business, but they're not operating cab companies. They're electronic clearinghouses that efficiently connect people seeking rides with a bigger universe of potential drivers. Customers reserve a ride through a smartphone application, which summons a limo (in Uber's case) or a privately owned car willing to deliver them in exchange for a donation (Sidecar and Lynx). All three open new opportunities not just for those who need rides but for those who'd like to make money driving their cars.
Taxi administrator Tom Drischler believes the three services are indistinguishable from a garden-variety taxi company. On Monday, he sent each a cease-and-desist letter, asserting it was operating an "unlicensed, commercial for-profit transportation service." But local cab regulations exist to protect people from unknown drivers they hail on the street, not from drivers they hire for pre-arranged trips. Those are the state's purview.