After last summers debate about ride-sharing, I experimented with taking taxis to and from the airport and bus station when Im traveling. I hate driving, a cab means I dont have to look for a parking spot or remember where I parked, and I can get a bit of work done in 10-15 minutes in the back of a cab. After a few months of #BhamTaxiProbs, the experiment is over: Id rather drive.
After my last ride to the airport (when I was picked up twenty minutes late even though I had reserved a taxi the day before) and my last ride home from the airport (in a taxi with a cracked windshield and trash in the backseat, driven in such a way as to make me worry that Id stumbled onto the set of a Mad Max reboot), I abandoned the experiment.
Ive been taken on unnecessarily circuitous routes. I had a driver stop for gas and spend most of my ride on the phone. Ive had a driver texting at red lights. Ive regularly had to give drivers directions. Ive wasted time waiting for drivers to fumble with my credit cards and finicky card readers.
My experience with Uber and Lyft in New York, Atlanta, Charleston, San Antonio, DC, and Phoenix couldnt be more different. They offer cleaner, more comfortable rides at much lower prices, with far greater transparency, and with more convenient payment and feedback mechanisms. I went to Charleston in March; and where I normally would have rented a car and put up with the annoyances that come with navigating an unfamiliar city and finding and paying for parking, I was able to take Uber everywhere. Access to cheap and reliable ridesharing made it a much more pleasant experience andimportantly for municipal leadersleft me with a very positive impression of the city.
With Uber and Lyft, I get a picture of my route, a picture of my driver, and an estimate of how much its going to cost me. My credit card is charged automatically, and I can offer a nearly instant rating and feedback pretty much as soon as the ride is over. Some drivers have even had bottled water and snacks for their passengers. With cabs that use Square as a payment-processor, I can leave feedback after I get a receipt in my email. With cabs that dont, I imagine I would have to contact the company or the appropriate regulatory authorities in order to leave feedbacka process that just isnt worth the trouble.
Resistance to innovation hurts the Birmingham brand. The citys refusal to accommodate ride-sharing innovators is sending prospective visitors and residents the message that they cannot expect the same amenities they take for granted in other cities. If the Slossfest Twitter explosion is any indication, we are at the point where people are surprised when they cant get Uber or Lyft in a major city.
There are substitutes for ride-sharing. Get a designated driver. Get to know a cabbie you can trust. And so on. Were fortunate that this is so, but we wouldnt need to waste our creative energies on work-arounds if a cheaper, higher-quality, more convenient option hadnt been effectively taken off the table last summer.
The world is changing, and if we want to keep up we need to embrace innovation and recognize others freedom to choose how to get around. There are worse things than lousy taxis, but #BhamTaxiProbs are symptoms of a much deeper refusal to embrace innovation and trust people with liberty. Rules that encourage innovation and a culture that celebrates it turned ours from a world where life was solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short to one that is connected, rich, comfortable, refined, and long. If history has taught us anything, it is that these are not automatic. We can feed the goose that lays the golden eggs, or we can kill itor at least gravely weaken it. Thats what we do with regulations that restrict innovation.
Art Carden is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute in Oakland, California and an Associate Professor of Economics at Samford Universitys Brock School of Business.