I’ve been hesitant to write this post for quite a while because I rely on the taxis in St. Louis to get around since I’m visually handicapped. I have no reason whatsoever to think that speaking out, even indirectly, against the taxi companies will affect my ability to get a cab when I need one. I find myself far from the center of the debate I’m going to discuss here, and for a multitude of reasons, I don’t see myself taking a leadership position in the quest to get Uber and Lyft to St. Louis. Edward Domain is doing a tremendous job in that area and I support the effort fully. However, I do need taxis often and don’t want my personal opinions to get in the way of being able to get to things like doctor’s appointments. But as they say, No Guts, No Glory, so here’s what’s on my mind.
St. Louis is two cities, the one real people live in and the one the small group of civic and business leaders think they’ve created that simply doesn’t exist except in their minds. All too often, decisions are made for the latter city, with the needs of people in the real city not taken into account or completely taken for granted. The issue of ridesharing shines a blinding spotlight on the differences between the real St. Louis and the “heavy hitters” perception of the city and St. Louis County.
The region has more than it’s share of problems, murder, crime, the economy, the upcoming loss of the St. Louis Rams and more. Leaders, at least some of them, are trying to fight all the problems while they try to promote St. Louis as a great place for tech companies to start or relocate. But one of the problems with bringing tech workers to town, and a long-lasting, unsolved problem of the region that these same leaders choose to ignore, is the horrendous transportation system in the region. If you don’t have a car, you’re basically screwed. Taxis are expensive and often hard to come by. The public transit system serves only parts of the region, needs to be expanded and enriched, but isn’t likely to have that happen for a long time. There will be more cutbacks before there are new light rail lines, BRT, or expanded bus service. One alternative that, for the most part, is working well is for people to use a service where they can order a ride that is often less expensive than a taxi using a smartphone app.
In order to try to address the region’s inadequate transportation choices for people who either can’t or don’t want to drive their own car, Uber and a group of very passionate supporters want to bring the service to STL. And to be clear, when I say “the service”, I’m talking about the affordable UberX service where people giving the rides drive their own cars. St. Louis already has “Uber Black”, the luxury car/limousine version of Uber. Right now, St. Louis is the largest metropolitan area in the country without Uber, Lyft, or any other form of ridesharing. To say the least, the (and I have no other word for this) battle to bring ridesharing to St. Louis has been a spectacle. The Metropolitan Taxi Commission, about half of whose members own or work for local taxi companies, has steadfastly blocked Uber from coming to the region, throwing up roadblocks every time it seems like a deal is done to license Uber. Just this week, it looked like the Commission was close to coming up with reasonable rules for Uber and Lyft to operate under, but the meeting turned into a melee, complete with police escorting citizens out of the meeting room.
This insightful article by David Nicklaus of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch looks at the Uber situation from a strictly business perspective, and like so many other times progress is impeded in St. Louis, cites local history for valuable lessons that the Powers That Be should be paying attention to. But the entrenched, closed circle of St. Louis political and regulatory leadership keeps on finding ways to ignore both that history and the needs of people in the region.
St. Louis is running out of eyes to blacken (as in from getting punched around over and over). The region should have ridesharing and the regulators who are holding that back should get over themselves and take the public’s interests and needs into account. Once we get this embarrassing debacle behind us, maybe we as a region can spend our time and energy dealing with far more serious problems.