Lessons learned from Uber could help local taxi companies
The debate about the controversial transportation service Uber became especially heated prior to last year’s film festival week as traditional, locally owned taxi companies complained about Uber’s lack of local regulation.
It is not hard to understand the tensions between traditional transportation companies and Internet-based behemoths like Uber and Lyft. Lodging companies have seen similar upheavals with the advent of Airbnb and VRBO. In fact, service providers and users in almost every conceivable business are finding new ways to connect with one another — often bypassing community stalwarts that pay taxes and contribute to local nonprofits.
Since last year’s festival week, both Park City and the state Legislature have tried to level the playing field — by imposing some safety and fee regulations on companies like Uber while also protecting their right to operate.
That seemed to be enough to settle down the controversy in Park City until last week when it was revealed that Uber had negotiated an agreement for a prime spot to do business during this year’s festival. As one of the Sundance Film Festival’s sponsors, the on-demand, for-hire car service struck a deal to operate at the flagpole lot on Swede Alley for the duration of the festival.
Local taxi drivers are rightfully upset. Since its relatively recent appearance on the transportation scene in Park City, Uber has steadily grown. It is estimated that, last year, 150 to 200 Uber drivers chipped into taxi companies’ business during the festival. And as more people become comfortable with mobile apps, public acceptance of services like Uber will continue to increase.
That’s worrisome for locally owned companies that purchase their own vehicles, buildings and garages. It could also become a problem for a city that is trying to reduce the number of cars on the road because Uber makes it easier for people to avoid using mass transit.
Apparently the Park City Council was unwilling to turn down Sundance’s request to let Uber take over the flagpole lot. But lessons learned from this round of debate could be directed toward a positive future outcome. If the model works for Uber during the festival, perhaps it could work for local taxi companies year round. After the festival, the city could consider establishing one or more taxi stands, if not at the flagpole lot then at smaller spots in the downtown area.
For their part, taxi companies need to adapt to the new competition by creating their own mobile apps, charging competitive rates and becoming as nimble as those hungry Uber entrepreneurs.
It is impossible to turn the clock back to the days before online shopping fundamentally redefined the way everyone does business, but the city can — and should — try to find new ways to acknowledge the contributions made by locally owned transportation companies.
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