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Taxis Have To Offer Uber-Esque Apps Starting This Summer

Taxicab in Hollywood (Photo by didier burton via the LAist Featured Photos pool on Flickr)
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The Los Angeles taxi industry says they've suffered a drop in rides since ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft came to town. But in a move that will make taxis more user-friendly and competitive, city officials will be requiring taxi drivers to start offering an app, very much like Uber, starting this summer.

The Board of Taxicab Commissioners voted on Thursday to require that taxi drivers use an app for their services, a requirement dubbed "e-hail," by Aug. 20 or be fined $200 a day, reported Reuters. There are still a lot of details they'll have to hash out from now through the summer: if they'll be using the fixed rates they have now or offer variable rates (like Uber, which can charge surge-pricing during peak hours) and if they will need to create a new app or use ones that are already in existence (like Curb and Flywheel). Transportation officials say that they could even cut off cab drivers from using the app if they've been accused of a violent crime.

Hailing a taxicab in Los Angeles is virtually impossible, since we're such a sprawling city compared to, say, New York. And ordering a cab isn't easy either: you have to call a dispatcher to get a ride and then deal with long wait times. Requiring the use of an app could make it easier for passengers because they could track their drivers to see how far along they are, as well as easily pay them through their smartphone. It's a user-friendly move but it's bound to be good for business, too.

"Ironically, we may be preserving competition through regulation," taxi commission President Eric Spiegelman told the L.A. Times last month.

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The city's taxi industry says the number of rides they service dropped by 21 percent last year.

But even with an app, it will be a long journey for the taxi industry to compete on a level playing field with ride-sharing companies. The taxi industry has a strict set of rules they have to follow, but it's the wild, wild west for ride-sharing companies. The Times reported that although the city keeps a watchful eye over how cabs operate, California's Public Utilities Commission hasn't set any limits on what ride-sharing companies charge their passengers or how many of them can be on the roads.

Ride-sharing companies tend to charge less than taxi cabs, and Spiegelman says he doesn't think it's likely the city will agree on lowering the minimum fare requirements for cab drivers because they already don't make a lot of money.

There are also other differences in regulations between the taxi industry and companies like Uber that put the cab drivers at a disadvantage since they, in a sense, have a responsibility to perform public services. According to the New Yorker, Los Angeles taxi drivers have to charge wheelchair-accessible taxicabs at the same price as a regular cab (yet UberX charges more), and make sure that they have taxi accessibility in poorer neighborhoods like South L.A., while ride-sharing companies don't.

However, ride-sharing companies are slowly getting regulated. San Francisco and Los Angeles district attorneys have filed a lawsuit against Uber, saying they've misled their customers on doing background checks on their drivers, and have overcharged riders.

Spiegelman is aware that an app might not save the industry, but he says they have to try: "But we know what happens when we do nothing. We aren't going to come in and save the day immediately. We're going to come in and do the best we can with what we have."