Taxi stand: Pittsburgh deserves better cab service

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Pittsburgh should eagerly welcome new Internet-based ride-sharing companies so the city may soon have taxi service that customers can depend on.

The only thing reliable about taxis here is their unreliability. Waiting for hours or waiting in vain is the most predictable service offered by local cab companies.

That’s why it’s good news that Lyft and Uber, car services in use in other cities, have arrived. Unfortunately, the services are facing tough opposition, not only from existing operators but also from state law that makes it difficult for new competitors to enter the market.

The stated objections have to do with how the services operate. Drivers use their personal vehicles, meaning they don’t necessarily have commercial licenses or appropriate insurance. There are also questions about how the businesses can be taxed appropriately and assure patrons’ safety.

But, as Kevin Acklin, chief of staff to Mayor Bill Peduto, pointed out, the present state of Pittsburgh cab service poses a hazard of a different sort, particularly on the bar-rich South Side. Tavern patrons who get frustrated waiting for a taxi may give up and drive when they’ve had too much to drink.

The owners of the city’s two largest cab companies — Pittsburgh Transportation Group, which includes Yellow Cab, and Star Transportation Group, which includes Classy Cab and Veterans’ Taxi — have taken the offensive, sending a letter that asked Mr. Peduto for an ordinance that would ramp up the enforcement powers of city police.

Fortunately, the administration said no; it welcomes the much-needed competition. The big obstacle to taxi cab choice lies in Harrisburg. The state Public Utility Commission says services in which drivers use their own cars are illegal in Pennsylvania. Anyone taking fees for rides must have a commercial license.

Because state law so strongly favors existing companies, lawmakers must change it. This should be a no-brainer for those in control, members of a Republican Party that sells itself as a champion of free enterprise and small business entrepreneurship.

Otherwise, Lyft and Uber could face the same fate as a similar service called SideCar, which was shut down in Philadelphia. Pittsburgh shouldn’t take that road, especially as it tries to attract new residents with a more vibrant urban environment that has the amenities expected in big cities.

Change and robust competition aren’t likely without legislation. After all, James Campolongo, head of Pittsburgh Transportation, thinks service in Pittsburgh already is “actually better” than other cities. Apparently he hasn’t talked to any transplants from New York or Boston or even — dare we say it? — Cleveland.

Pittsburgh needs better cab service. The Legislature should be able to deliver it faster than it takes to get a taxi.

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