Ruth Ann Dailey: Taxi! Let the market move us

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Everyone in Pittsburgh has a taxi story, but mine is different and brief. It also involves liquor.

For starters, the requested taxi actually showed up. Glory be!

The trip to the train station cost $5 or $6. Perfect.

So a few days later when I returned to Pittsburgh and a gentleman approached me at the train station and said, "Taxi?" I said yes and thought, "Wow, once again this is all going so smoothly."

As he was stowing my suitcase, another woman asked him about getting to the North Side, and next thing I know, she's in the back seat with me and we're sharing the ride.

Since we chatted for a moment, we were already en route before I noticed there was no meter on the dash. Huh.

When we pulled up at my Deutschtown house, the man asked for $10 -- almost double what the taxi ride to the train station had been. I didn't want to argue, so that's all I gave him. No tip if you're a jitney driver misrepresenting yourself as a legitimate taxi -- and have a double fare, to boot.

These few years later, I wonder what he charged the woman once they reached Observatory Hill.

If you've read this far, you're wondering where the promised liquor enters the story.

Right here: What taxis and liquor have in common in this part of the country is that they're over-regulated and thus over-priced, scarce and subject to bootlegging.

Tipsy people who need a sober driver-for-hire on the South Side have about as much chance of success as wanna-be-tipsy people looking for a state store open past 5 p.m. on New Year's Eve. Ain't no such thing.

That's what you get when you over-regulate a consumer product and create monopolies, or near-monopolies. The suppliers' entry cost is forced up -- whether it's for a taxi medallion or a liquor license -- reducing the number of entrants and the customers' choice and increasing the product's cost.

Here's what else happens: People with brains invent ways to circumvent stupid laws.

Pittsburgh taxi companies have just urged our new mayor to crack down on the free-market response to their scarce -- and often incompetent -- product. Star Transportation Group and Pittsburgh Transportation Group want Mayor Bill Peduto and city council to outlaw ride-sharing services such as Lyft and Uber.

Because they don't want any competition for the consumers they so haphazardly serve.

Lyft and Uber are freelance services that match up would-be taxi-takers with drivers who use their own cars to fill the large, frequent gaps in Pittsburgh's traditional taxi service. They're basically a smartphone jitney.

And they wouldn't exist if we didn't need them. Unlike the old jitneys, though, providers of these newfangled services sign up with a company and are paid via online accounts.

I haven't used either service, so I checked out their websites to see how they work. Lyft, which prominently touts its "$1 million excess liability insurance" for drivers and users, indicates that drivers are paid 80 percent of whatever amount their passenger "donates" to Lyft for the ride.

Uber, which says its drivers meet "all local regulations," has an app that lets would-be passengers enter their pickup point and destination and get a cost estimate.

Either of these would be a lot different from my inadvertent jitney experience. Power to the people!

Luckily for us, Mr. Peduto has had the common misfortune of not being able to get a taxi when he needed one and therefore, according to chief of staff Kevin Acklin, supports these alternatives. He knows that his experience is but one of thousands hereabouts.

The city's taxi companies defend their poor showing by pointing out that unless there's a convention in town, drivers can't make a living. So they focus on airport runs and ignore riders whose needs would be less lucrative.

So the market has responded to erratic supply and unpredictable demand with producers who don't mind producing only when needed: brilliant.

If such services aren't legal, government should either leave them alone or find a way to make them legal -- by offering different, lower-cost licenses for part-time services, just like it should offer more varieties of liquor licenses (and a lot more of them).

As heartening as it is that our new mayor is in touch with high-tech, free-market ideas, change must come at the state level -- and the Pennsylvania Utility Commission, which regulates taxi services, is just about as consumer-friendly as Ye Olde Liquor Control Board.

So don't hold your breath -- and don't bother holding your arm up, either: Nobody flags a taxi here. Just punch your smartphone and get going.

Ruth Ann Dailey:

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