“Never laugh at live dragons,” warns the protagonist of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, a reminder to avoid premature celebrations before an adventure has truly ended. It’s a timely proverb this month as many observers rush to declare an end to the regulatory battle between the Philadelphia Parking Authority and Uber, which wrapped up just in time for the city to play host to the Democratic National Convention.
Unfortunately, the dragons are not yet dispatched, and the adventure is far from concluded.
When it was announced that Uber could operate legally through September, it was heralded as the beginning of a new era. The agreement is a step in the right direction, but bear in mind just how toxic negotiations had gotten. The taxi companies were likening Uber’s presence in Philadelphia to “a terroristic act like ISIS invading the Middle East” and using the legal system to harass its drivers.
Of the 50 cities ranked by the R Street Institute, a free-market think tank, in its most recent RideScore report, which gauges how friendly cities’ regulatory frameworks are to competitive transportation-for-hire services, Philadelphia ranked dead last. The report noted the city’s “failure to improve has left it alone at the bottom as the only city to receive a failing grade” on friendliness to ride-sharing.
Even though the nation’s eyes are on Philadelphia, be wary of boasts that this situation has been resolved. The agreement has several glaring issues, and timing is chief among them.
While a temporary halt in the Parking Authority’s efforts to sink Uber is welcome (setting aside the shameful fact that it happened at all), the agreement was reached just before the state legislature recessed for the summer and only lasts through Sept. 30. That’s four days after the Senate reconvenes and 11 days after the House reconvenes.
Given that ride-sharing legislation has been lingering in the legislature for more than a year, the prospects that all issues will be resolved in the handful of days before the agreement expires rest on a level of enthusiasm that has heretofore never been demonstrated.
Moreover, a temporary agreement with one company is not the same thing as a permanent, statewide fix that would allow transportation network companies to operate freely and competitively. The deal doesn’t address the primary issues and leaves out smaller ride-sharing companies that don’t enjoy Uber-level status in the marketplace and can’t afford a protracted legal battle.
An ideal regulatory framework would recognize that ride-sharing is here to stay. It would be devoid of loopholes that unfairly benefit one side or the other and would ensure the maximum level of competition. Clear and concise model legislation already has been passed by dozens of states, setting basic standards for issues like background checks and insurance coverage while otherwise liberating the market to bloom.
The DNC has provided the impetus needed to create movement in stagnant negotiations. Lawmakers should use this opportunity to pass long-term reforms, not just kick the can down the road to the next crisis. A piecemeal approach may comfort those who hold out hope that they can avoid the march of technology, but it will only serve to hurt the people of Pennsylvania and the commonwealth’s ability to remain competitive.