Unless you’re not paying any attention to local politics, you’ve heard the news: Mayor Jenny Durkan is proposing increasing the flat, per-ride tax on TNCs (Uber/Lyft) in Seattle, proposing to spend the dollars on housing and the streetcar, while also setting some baseline wage minimums for drivers. While the legislation itself hasn’t been unveiled (at least not that I’ve seen), the concept of improving driver conditions is good and obviously should be supported. The tax is a little bit trickier. But the assertion that these pieces of legislation are “bold” and exhibit “bold leadership” is…well, it’s a stretch. If anything, it is indicative of how little we have come to expect from this administration.
That the day before the international climate strike, transit and environmental protection advocates are cheering a tax that is predicated on continued expansion of driving is astonishing. Coming just over a year after the EHT, wherein the Mayor identified her role as bargaining on behalf of Amazon (who recently cut health benefits for part-time workers), was defeated, relying on a regressive tax and expanding a polluting industry to fund anything is suspect. Further, this proposal as presented thus far exhibits how myopic the parties involved are being, completing ignoring a whole set of workers, road conditions, and opportunity to include environmental justice as part of a TNC regulation overhaul.
The Tax Is Regressive.
The current Executive Director of Transportation Choices Coalition has taken to Twitter to assert that the proposed tax is “not regressive,” referring to TNCs as people’s “personal chauffeur service.” This is a take, and depending on how you view “progressive” and “regressive” taxation, could be your position, as well.
However, by its very application, in my view, this tax is regressive. Flat fees necessarily mean that lower-income users are paying a larger percentage of their income that higher income users. Here, workers who are using TNCs to get home after closing a bar because their is no bus service are now going to see their cost for transportation increase. And while I can already hear the “but it’s only a couple bucks a week!” from y’all, when people are living on the margins, that’s a bigger deal.
Don’t get me wrong - my guess is the overwhelming majority of users are going to be able to afford this new flat tax just fine. And generally, I’m pretty agnostic until there is better information about the riders themselves. But to embrace a taxing scheme that relies on expansion of driving in Seattle is troubling.
The Proposal for Wages Is Too Narrow
Should there be a minimum wage for TNC drivers? So long as Uber and Lyft operate the way they do, of course. They could change their model to a cab model, and have drivers pay licensing fees while keeping their fares, but have opted to continue to collect fares and pay sub-standard wages to their workers. You know who else does this: DoorDash. Postmates. Amazon.
The misclassification of workers is rampant among corporations. This means that the workers are paying double-payroll taxes, don’t have access to unemployment, don’t have access to workers’ compensation protections, and creates a scenario where collective bargaining is difficult-to-impossible. California has taken bold action on this - AB5 addresses misclassification through clear definitions of what constitutes being an employee. And California was sure to include all misclassified workers.
This proposal appears to not only embrace the misclassification of workers and accept it, but also completely ignore workers in on-demand delivery, who we continue to learn are having their tips stolen as part of business model for these services.
The Proposal Relies on Expansion of the Service
Cabs are very well regulated in Seattle and King County. When TNCs came online, they completely flouted the law, and rather than incorporate them into the framework for cabs, the City essentially allowed them their own set of regulations that allowed unlimited TNCs on the road, no controls on price, no requirement to serve all neighborhoods in the City, no background check requirements for drivers, etc.
Since then, reports are that rides in for-hire vehicles - with all of their emission spewing and traffic congesting goodness - have risen nearly 10-fold. That is not good news. We see the results on the ground - blocked bike lanes, blocked transit lanes, blocked crosswalks and intersections, unsafe driving from poorly trained drivers, and more. When we are trying to reduce reliance on cars, continuing to allow this unfettered access to city roads is antithetical to our stated environmental values.
A bold proposal would reopen the regulations for TNCs to bring them 100% in line with cabs (including per-mile rates), place hard limits on TNCs allowed on the road at any given time (and if they refuse to share their data, place hard limits on licenses and/or create a medallion-type system), and work to create a workforce development center with training and testing requirements to obtain that license. Instead, we get a proposal that is effectively a cash grab relying on more and more cars on our roadways to be successful.
Speaking of Licensing and Road Use…
An ongoing safety issue our city has seen with TNCs is partially rooted in the wage structure, but also the lack of any meaningful training or enforcement. This isn’t just about the workers, this is also about the public safety for the entire city. At this time, there is no meaningful disincentive for TNCs to pick up passengers in bike lanes or block crosswalks to do so.
A bold proposal would follow the lead of L.A., and require TNCs only pick up and drop off at designated areas in urban villages and downtown, and allow for reporting of violations that could lead to suspension and eventual revocation of license by those impacted by TNCs choosing to do otherwise.
Additionally, Seattle could require TNC drivers maintain large decals on the sides, and toppers on vehicles, when they are operating as TNCs. Not only to improve safety for other road users, but to clearly mark for riders what is a TNC prior to them entering a vehicle.
This is Seattle - We Should Be Able to Do Better
The current Chair of the King County Young Democrats had a take on Twitter. In the same week where he has cheered his organization endorsing a Socialist for Seattle City Council, he has also become part of the Mayor’s cheering squad for this proposal. It appears his take comes down to this: take what we can get when we can.
When it comes to successes from the State and Federal government, I tend to agree. But taking a narrow-in-scope win and treating it like a groundbreaking policy proposal at the beginning in Seattle is accepting defeat pretty early. This proposal is fine, but to pretend it’s some grandiose set of legislation is an exercise in accepting mediocrity as greatness.
Further, as pointed out by Erica C. Barnett, the reliance on this funding source (which relies on growing greenhouse gas emissions) is itself a risky move. So instead of a more progressive option - a tax on the corporations with the most revenue that have benefited the most from the Trump tax cuts - this is a regressive tax on consumers that may not pan out.
Further, relying on this tax to fund necessary programs (and all of the proposed projects are necessary programs) means that the City will be less likely to do work to reign in TNCs. At a time when we should be working to decrease the number one emitter of GHGs in Seattle - cars - this proposal will discourage efforts to do just that. At a time when we should be increasing training and safety standards, and decreasing the total number of TNCs on the road to improve safety for pedestrians and cyclists and improve reliability of transit, this proposal will discourage efforts to do just that.
The worker protections in this proposal should of course be adopted. They should have been adopted four years ago when it became clear how shitty TNCs were treating their drivers. But there should be nothing to endorse the business practices of misclassification of workers, and one can only hope Washington State is moving in the direction of our own AB5.
I stand firm in my position - this proposal is milquetoast, and descriptions of it as “bold” show how little people have come to expect from the leadership of one of the most liberal cities in the United States. And that is a sad commentary.