Fining Businesses for Convenience?
It was just this April that Missouri finally made its vehicle-for-hire regulations hospitable to transportation network companies (TNC) like Uber and Lyft. Still, some are holding onto the glorious days of regulation past. Why are Lambert International Airport and Saint Louis City officials trying to impose additional fees and regulations on TNCs again?
The city and the commission that oversees the airport have endorsed a plan to impose $3 pick-up and drop-off fees on TNCs serving the airport. That means every time a passenger is either picked up or dropped off at the airport by drivers for companies like Uber or Lyft, they’ll pay an additional $3 on top of their regular fare. There are two apparent motivations for the fees: (1) the airport wants to collect as much revenue as possible; and (2) taxis pay a $4 pick-up fee at the airport, and so regulators want to “level the playing field” between taxis and the more popular TNCs. There are also two fundamental problems with the proposal.
For one, taxis pay a special pick-up fee partially because they’re guaranteed fares at the airport. They queue at a designated area where, after waiting their turn, they get a fare. But this designated area wasn’t free to build, and TNC drivers cannot que there for guaranteed fares. TNC drivers respond to passenger requests in real time, and so must find fares “on their own.” Moreover, TNCs impose no special costs on airports like taxis do in terms of a designated waiting area or congestion. So if the TNC business model doesn’t necessitate these extra costs, why should TNCs or their passengers pay for them? Should TNCs be punished for being efficient? The answer may irk you as much as it does me: because of the “convenience of being allowed to offer curbside pickup.”
Secondly, it is not the government’s job to pick winners and losers. By protecting some market participants at the expense of others, policymakers hurt ordinary consumers—the overwhelming majority of society—in two ways. In the present case, consumers must first pay artificially higher prices for a service they demand. Second, economic progress is slowed by propping up failing businesses. Some city officials say that allowing TNCs to operate at the airport could hurt taxis’ business. They’re exactly right. Ford’s Model T hurt the carriage industry, and the advent of electric refrigerators hurt the ice industry—but society as a whole grew richer. The market destroys some jobs as others are created. Imposing fees on TNCs will not “level the playing field”; it will simply protect government-favored businesses from the pressures of the market (i.e., the preferences of consumers).
If policymakers truly want to level the playing field, they should eliminate fees, regulations, and other perks that help some at the expense of others—for both TNCs and taxis. Deregulation has already proved itself effective in the vehicle-for-hire industry. I hope officials keep this in mind going forward.