- Special Projects
Chad Blair: Aloha everybody and welcome to another installment of the Pod Squad, as always Chad Blair with Honolulu Civil Beat. Today we are talking about transportation. No, it’s not as dry as it sounds. We’re actually talking about Uber and Lyft and taxis and cabs. It is a hot topic here on Oahu and in the state. To join me to talk about it is Anita Hofschneider, who covers Honolulu Hale for Civil Beat. How are you Anita?
Anita Hofschneider: Hi Chad, I’m doing well. How are you?
Blair: I’m good. I’m glad to have you here. Love your reporting on the city.
And my colleague at the state Legislature and so much else, Nathan Eagle. How are you?
Nathan Eagle: Doing well Chad, thanks.
Blair: Alright, so you guys are younger than me. I mean it’s clear in so many cases and I’ll admit it, I’m in my 50s.
Eagle: Mostly visually.
Blair: Mostly visually exactly. And I’ve aged well by the way, I’ve got good genes.
Hofschneider: I agree Chad.
Eagle: I would second that. That’s unanimous.
Blair: I’ve got to admit every once in awhile, working with you young kids here at Civil Beat, I’m always reminded of how I’m just behind the times on so many things. And the concept of Uber and Lyft, to catch a ride from one place to another is absolutely foreign to me. I have not done it yet. I’ve heard about it, you guys have done it, and it sounds like fun. I saw the cars with the pink mustaches. But I’m old school. I’m the kind of guy that goes to Honolulu International Airport and pays 50 bucks for a cab one-way from Manoa to the airport.
Tell me, and I’ll go with you Anita first, why is Uber and Lyft such a popular alternative?
Hofschneider: Well if you know anything about millennials Chad, you know we are addicted to our phones. The way Uber and Lyft works is you just download an app on your phone.
Blair: What’s an app again?
Eagle: Short for applications Chad.
Blair: Got it, I knew that much.
Hofschneider: Essentially the app is able to figure out where you are and you can request one just through the app. You can see the name of your driver, a picture of your driver, the rating that they’ve received, watch the little car drive closer and closer to you.
Blair: This is all on your smart phone?
Hofschneider: Yes, it’s very convenient. You don’t have to call a cab company and wait, kind of wondering whether they’re going to the wrong street. You can actually see in real time where the car is moving, and you can also have the opportunity to rate your driver. Your driver is generally not a full-time worker. The way those companies work is they tend to attract people who want part-time work, who are just using their own cars and maybe need an extra 10 hours of work per week, and want to make some extra money on the weekends driving people around.
Blair: Nathan jump in here, what else do we need to know about Uber and Lyft?
Eagle: Well the one thing I would say to Anita is that, I call dibs on the code that we would give to Chad, since he’s never ridden with Uber or Lyft. If we give you our code we get 20 dollars in rides, you get 20 dollars in rides. So it’s very important to dish out that code.
Blair: So there’s a bit of a financial incentive on the part of people who ride this to get others to ride it as well.
Eagle: Absolutely. It’s growing quickly.
Blair: It’s not a Ponzi scheme or anything like that, I’m hoping not.
Eagle: No it’s not.
Blair: Why are the Charleys’s taxis and the other cab companies in Honolulu so upset about this, what is their beef?
Eagle: They want to level the playing field. There’s folks that are going to say it’s about consumer issues, consumer safety. That’s probably partly true. There’s been a lot of reports that there’s safety issues on both sides. I think it’s a lot more that they’re cutting into the market, so they want Lyft and Uber drivers to be regulated the same way.
Blair: And do you think they’re safe? Does the driver have some sort of accreditation that’s required?
Hofschneider: Uber and Lyft drivers, they have to have driver’s licenses and the companies do perform their own background checks, but they don’t have to go through the same city approved certification process that taxi drivers have to go through. When you get into a taxi cab, your driver had to pass a medical test, they had to take an exam showing that they’re familiar with the roads and that they’re familiar with the traffic laws — and that’s all city approved. So there are differences. The taxi industry was telling me that, that creates safer drivers on the taxi side, whereas a representative from Uber that I spoke with said that he thinks that as long as you have a state issued driver’s license, you shouldn’t be prohibited from driving other people around.
Blair: But you know, I feel a little comforted as a consumer, albeit a biased one who’s only taken taxis and cabs and haven’t tried this new service, when I hear that it’s gone through a review process, that they have to meet certain standards that the City and County set. I feel actually comforted knowing that, and would even feel okay paying a little bit more. Is that an exaggeration of what the benefit is?
Eagle: No, I think there’s validity in that. I also think that you need to live a little Chad.
Blair: It’s so true on so many levels Nathan.
Eagle: But like anything new, it might fly under the radar for a while. Regulations, almost in a sense to me, need to catch up with it. And the Uber and Lyft guys we’ve talked to aren’t afraid of being regulated from what I’ve been told anyway. It’s just that they think they need to be regulated differently, not lumped into the same categories.
Blair: What about this idea that they have to put a a big sign on top of their vehicle just like a taxi cab has a sign. Is that a reasonable thing to ask?
Hofschneider: They’re not a big fan of that requirement because one of the things about Uber is that you’re jumping into somebody else’s car, you’re not jumping into a yellow taxi.
Blair: Because usually they’re like some decaying sedan from the 1970s — well, I exaggerate. But they don’t want the signs because it’s their car, is that what you’re saying?
Hofschneider: Yes. I just know that’s one of the points that they were reticent to agree with.
Eagle: It’s an image aspect.
Blair: OK what about this idea that, at least with the city legislation that’s being proposed, you would have to use a taximeter system to toll the rates, rather than a GPS, is that right Nathan?
Eagle: That is right. And I think that’s the taxi industry saying, “Hey play by our rules,” and I do think that would make it really tough for Uber and Lyft. In that side, I could kind of see why, “Hey, don’t lump us in with this, come up with the times, let’s utilize technology that’s out there.” Phones can calculate distances with GPS technology. It’s like, “come on guys.”
Blair: So is the argument that if you’re using a GPS, it’s always going to be 20.2 miles and therefore I’m going to charge you X amount of dollars. Whereas if you’re in a taxi cab, and we’ve all experienced this, boy I’m at a long red light, that little meter just keeps going tick tick tick tick.
Hofschneider: Well the Uber app actually, when I spoke with a representative yesterday, the Uber app does take into account time as well as distance. They were saying that the app and the GPS technology that it relies upon is really integral for the entire business to work. That’s really the heart of the business — the fact that you have this little thing on your phone that can calculate distance and time and fares. And so, Bill 85 at the City Council would essentially ban Uber from being able to use that, which is why the company says that would force them out of Hawaii or Honolulu at least.
Blair: What’s cheaper, Uber and Lyft or a taxi, does anyone know?
Eagle: To me it’s Lyft then Uber than taxi. But it depends on surge pricing too. Uber can be a fortune, three times as much for instance during a busy time.
Blair: Oh I see, they charge more when it’s…
Eagle: There’s a UH football game or something and everyone’s wanting to use it, or it’s St. Patrick’s Day.
Hofschneider: And that’s another thing that the bill would regulate. Bill 85 wouldn’t allow Uber to impose surge pricing unless it’s between certain hours of the night or there’s certain events happening. That really comes into conflict with Uber’s policy where they say that, when there’s high demand for rides, they surge the prices to entice more part-time drivers to work. That’s another aspect of the bill that they find problematic.
Blair: Real quickly Nathan, the bill before the Legislature, Roz Baker the senator revived a bill that had died, it had gotten replaced basically, it’s much less far reaching than the council bill that Anita is talking about, what does it do?
Eagle: It absolutely is. It’s looking to shore up what people are seeing in terms of gap coverage in just strictly the vehicle insurance, so it deals just with that. The Legislature didn’t do anything this year with some of the bills and ideas that would have been a lot more far-reaching like what the county is looking at.
Blair: How much influence are lobbyists playing in this? That was one of thine things that caught my eye from your story. Anita I understand there’s a lot of money being spent to persuade minds.
Hofschneider: There is a lot of money. Ten days after Councilwoman Kobayashi and Councilman Martin introduced Bill 85, Kobayashi received $2,500 from a representative of the taxi cab industry.
Blair: Dale Evans I believe. As a matter of fact, runs Charley’s Taxis. Cha-ching, pure coincidence is that correct?
Hofschneider: Kobayashi told me she doesn’t look at her campaign contributions. But she is actually a long time friend of Dale Evans. Dale’s parents gave to Kobayashi and now she’s giving to Kobayashi. The taxi industry has a long history of influencing politics here in Honolulu and a long history of giving money to candidates, so Uber is kind of fighting against that.
Another aspect that we really didn’t mention in our story, a lot of the people who run taxi cab companies, they’re local, they’ve been here for a long time, and Uber and Lyft, even though they have billions of dollars to spend on lobbying as well, they’re somewhat at a disadvantage as being seen as the outside mainland company coming here and taking business away from the locals.
Blair: Where have I heard this before?
Eagle: That sounds like NextEra.
Hofschneider: Seriously. I was kind of hearing that at the council.
What’s also interesting Chad, as someone who’s interested in gender and race, I notices a lot of the people that were testifying for the taxi cab industry were older, were Asian or Pacific-Islander. And the representatives from Uber and Lyft who testifed were young white males. In Honolulu those racial dynamics are actually really interesting to see at play in the council. It made me question how those may be implicitly influencing.
Blair: Fascinating, it sounds like you went to a Bernie Sanders rally, but that’s another topic altogether.
Nathan a final point to you on this topic, Uber and Lyft versus taxis and cabs.
Eagle: I think we’ve kind of summed it up actually, I feel pretty good about it.
Blair: Did we do nicely.
I have something to ask you guys then. Do you know what “uber” means? It’s a German word.
Eagle: A lot?
Blair: Actually you’re close. My understanding is it’s a German word for super.
Have you heard of the word mensch? Ubermensch means superman. It’s something that Nietzsche wrote about, but that’s a topic for another day.
Eagle: Can’t wait to dive into that one with you.
Blair: That Ph.D. really coming in handy.
Eagle: The Civil Beat book club continues.
Blair: We can start one. I’ll smoke a pipe.
Anita Hofschneider, thank you for coming again onto the Pod Squad. Great work you’re doing covering City Hall.
Hofschneider: Thank you.
Blair: Nathan Eagle, I don’t know how I would cover the State Legislature without you. You’re my partner in crime down at the Capitol.
Eagle: Feeling’s mutual.
Blair: Alright guys, thank you for joining Civil Beat’s Pod Squad. Remember to subscribe to us on iTunes and Stitcher, visit our site at civilbeat.com, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Chad Blair for Honolulu Civil Beat, take care and aloha.