Consumers need PUC lift
Taxis, like power companies, are regulated by the state Public Utility Commission and, like power companies, typically have monopolies or near-monopolies where they operate. So it's not particularly surprising that the agency recoiled at the prospect of cabs facing meaningful competition.
After the PUC attempted to stop a new model of transportation-for-hire from competing with a taxi monopoly in Pittsburgh, a storm of public protest - including from Pittsburgh's city government - forced the agency to reverse course and play catch-up with disruptive technology.
Two transportation services that have swept into some of the world's major cities - Uber and Lyft - set up shop in Pittsburgh last winter. Consumers can summon a ride through an app on their smartphones. It is a form of Internet-based ride-sharing in which drivers use their own vehicles to provide rides, for fees.
The idea was born only in 2010 in San Francisco, but has taken off. Uber has calculated its value at more than $16 billion.
It's hard for the government to move that fast but it needs to in this case. There are legitimate regulatory matters at stake, including safety and financial responsibility. For example, who is responsible for financial damages if an Uber or Lyft vehicle is involved in a catastrophic crash? And there must be minimum safety standards for any commercial vehicle used in public transportation.
The state Legislature and Congress, along with the appropriate regulatory agencies, must deal with those questions soon because the "sharing" economy made possible by the Internet isn't going to wait. And part of the process should be better oversight of existing cab companies to ensure that their operations are worthy of the state's regulatory imprimatur.
Meanwhile, London cabbies probably have the best response. They have formed their own company, Hailo, which is modeled after Uber and Lyft, so that they also can compete within the new model.