Friday, December 6, 2013

A Feminist Defense of the Taxi Cartel

In most major US cities, the taxi industry is highly regulated, mandating all sorts of service standards and ownership rules. Unsurprisingly, many of these rules seem to be designed to restrict the supply and innovation of new market entrants, thereby protecting incumbents (taxi drivers and taxi companies) by keeping prices high and revenue streams secure. The flip-side of this arrangement is that for most people, getting someone to drive you around in a car is more difficult, more expensive, and less convenient than it otherwise would be.

With the rapid adoption of smartphones, a few upstart companies (Uber, Sidecar, Lyft) are attempting to break into the field, offering consumers the promise of radically convenient transportation options through gps-hailing and ridesharing. These innovations threaten the high wages of incumbent taxi operators, and currently an ongoing political battle is being waged in cities across the country to negotiate the entry and potential disruption of the industry.

In general I've been very sympathetic towards the disruptors: they're bringing technology to an outmoded industry, they're helping usher in the 'service-and-flow' economy (also known as the sharing economy), and most importantly they're helping to increase the real income of city-dwellers by reducing the price and increasing the accessibility of transportation.

Most of the pushback I've heard defending the status quo typically revolves around either concern for the livelihoods of taxi operators, or safety. The first point is silly: existing taxi operators have no substantive claim on special wage supports compared to any other service sector, and the gains realized from reform would mostly flow to consumers, of which there are many.

Up until recently, I've been content to brush off safety concerns as basically a 'bootlegger and baptist' phenomenon: cartel defenders talk about ensuring minimum safety standards and the moral solemnity of taxi drivers, but that's just a marketing ploy to keep themselves well-protected from competition.

However, in a recent conversation on this topic I was a bit thrown off by a safety-based argument I hadn't truly considered: that because I was a man my framing and analysis of this issue had led me to undervalue the potential safety issues of a more unregulated taxi industry. The habit of getting into a random car with a total stranger without a second thought is a social achievement that's been built up over time in part because of government's explicit backing of taxi operators. Any potential change in this situation runs the risk of undermining the relationship of trust implicit between taxis and riders. It would probably only take a few highly-publicized murders or sexual assaults for a new unregulated technology-mediated taxi industry to lose trust and collapse.

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