Mobile Tech Matters: Lessons from the Seattle Ride-Share Battle

The Seattle City Council made a smart move this past June when it reversed its decision to cap the number of allowable ride-sharing servicers (previously limited to 450 for the whole city).  By establishing the ban the city was impeding the development of a useful tool to support alternative transportation, as well impeding regional oriented transportation solutions.  It was a shortsighted, backwards, and protectionist move.

In a simple world, the Council’s ban amounts to either Luddite style protectionism in local government, or meaningful action in favor of public safety and protection of high wage blue collar jobs.  For my part I view ride-sharing as a positive, albeit disruptive force.  Despite Uber’s recent PR issues, similar companies like Lyft and Sidecar offer a valuable service and help fill a need in the market.  Moreover, by combining the choice and freedom of a taxi at a lower cost and with quicker and more convenient service, they are one (of many) exciting way supporting car-free lifestyles.

There are a number of ways that the City, County, and Region can take this case to heart.  For starters, King County Metro and Sound Transit could learn a lesson from Uber et. al’s successful integration of mobile technology.  Features like real-time tracking of your car’s arrival and mobile pay, all through the convenience of your phone are what have made these car services so successful.  These are also what have allowed them to out-compete traditional taxis.  Though mobile applications like One Bus Away do offer some progress in this direction, Metro and Sound Transit could do well to make a targeted effort to integrate mobile technology into their systems.

There are examples from other cities that they can look to.  TriMet, Portland’s regional transit authority has app’s that offer real-time tracking of buses and trains, allowing accurate departure times (something Metro’s One Bus Away does a mediocre job of at best according to my experience).  Through TriMet’s app you can also purchase train tickets on your phone.

Other regional policies can also help support smart use of new technology, and help reduce climate impacts.  Just a few of these include; reducing or eliminating parking fees for ridesharing users (especially in areas where transit gaps exist), reducing or eliminating parking requirements for developments that incorporate ride sharing, adopting region-wide regulations for ridesharing and other transportation technologies that allow for innovation while sufficiently protecting public safety, and streamline transit apps with real-time tracking of service and universal mobile pay.

Let’s take this chapter in Seattle history as a jumping off point for smart progressive governance.  Aligning policy to recognize and fully leverage the potential of new technologies, despite potential for minor disruptions to status quo, will allow regions to become more adaptable and effective at battling climate change.

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