EDITORIAL – Government hits the brakes on Uber-like service

Thanks to the ingenuity of two local entrepreneurs, we may soon be able to hail a taxi, track its arrival and pay our fare – all using our mobile phone.

But thanks to government’s apparently insatiable need to interfere with private enterprise, the Flex app falls far short of owners Rachel Smyth and Alex Cowan’s original vision, which was to create “Uber in Cayman.”

Rarely have we seen a more clear-cut case of government regulation and protectionism aimed so obviously at a single startup business – one which would clearly benefit the people who live on and visit our island.

Ms. Smyth and Mr. Cowan’s original business model would have engaged non-professional drivers (properly vetted and qualified) to offer rides to customers for a fee, bringing much-needed competition to the industry, to the benefit of consumers and Caymanian drivers eager to boost their earnings.

Instead, in response to officials’ concerns about possible negative impacts to the taxi industry, only the relatively few drivers licensed through the Public Transport Board will be allowed to pick up Flex passengers. Call it “Uber-lite.”

The watered-down “compromise” solution will bring some convenience and help standardize fares, but Ms. Smyth and Mr. Cowen had it right at the first draft. Their original idea would have broadened income opportunities for Caymanians, resulted in more competitive fares and greater convenience for riders. All government would have had to do was sit in the backseat and watch.

Ours is not the only jurisdiction where special interest groups, specifically taxicab drivers, their unions and associations, have tried to stop the natural tech-fueled evolution of this industry. Make no mistake, that is exactly what is happening in this instance.

Any legitimate concerns about safety or driver qualifications are easily addressed. Uber, for example, requires its driver-partners to meet age, experience and vehicle requirements, and to provide proof of a valid driver’s license, vehicle registration and insurance. Drivers in certain cities may have to meet additional conditions.

In fact, the driver-partner model increases safety by making it easier, and more affordable, to hail a ride when one is too tired or impaired to sit safely behind the wheel. Drivers would be freed from the need to carry large amounts of cash and its concomitant risk of crime. To limit the pool of Flex drivers to current licensed taxi drivers is not only counterproductive, it is foolhardy. (Cayman’s taxi drivers are not world-famous for their safe driving skills. And now they are a protected group?)

What’s worse, government’s interference may well torpedo the entire enterprise. Flex’s founders told the Compass the company is having some difficulty signing up the 20 or more drivers they will need to properly pilot the service in George Town and along Seven Mile Beach.

We have no doubt that Flex would have no trouble recruiting more than enough safe, qualified partner-drivers to launch the pilot, and extend the program islandwide.

As Mr. Cowan told the Compass, “The rest of the world are looking into self-driving cars and we are still using radios and rate sheets. We need to start thinking ahead for the tourism industry. These ride sharing platforms have become worldwide, and tourists are asking why don’t we have it and when it is coming.”

The answer is as clear as it is disappointing: Rather than support the vision of two born-and-raised Caymanian entrepreneurs and allow licensed drivers the opportunity to earn extra income, government has sided with a narrow special-interest group reluctant to evolve with – and adapt to – the times.

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  1. The watered-down “compromise” solution will bring some convenience and help standardize fares, but Ms. Smyth and Mr. Cowen had it right at the first draft. Their original idea would have broadened income opportunities for Caymanians, resulted in more competitive fares and greater convenience for riders. All government would have had to do was sit in the backseat and watch….

    The unruly and chaotic taxi system and drivers in Cayman become even more so with an influx of amateurs coming into the system at the lure of ‘easy’ money and driving the legitimate taxi drivers out of business.

    In the UK and most countries in which Uber operates, drivers signing up to the company and use of the app has to be vetted and licensed by whatever Govt authority that issues taxi licenses, just like any other taxi drivers….

    And any similar company should have to do the same in Cayman.

  2. A very good editorial.
    I would add a couple of comments;
    1/ all taxi drivers operating in Cayman, per the Transportation Law , are required to have a meter to ensure customers are correctly charged for journeys undertaken.
    If any person in Cayman has found a taxi with said meter in the their taxi please let me know. Apparently, according to Government, the rather farcical ‘ rate sheets(!)’ are actually approved by Government as an approved substitute for meters. Interesting, one can only wonder how many of our government ministers have actually been in a ride in a local taxi where the ‘rate sheet’ seems to morph into whatever rate the taxi driver fancies charging on that particular day/ evening.
    2/ the biggest complaint, by far , from visitors exiting our Islands, is the taxi service. Being ripped off time & time again- different fares for the same journeys. Caymankind ?
    3/ the Transport Licensing Board has decided, in its infinite wisdom, not to license any more Caymanian taxi drivers at this time. Interesting coincidence! Protectionism & cartel come to mind.

    The younger generation use Apps not phones- Cayman is a first world country- let’s move with the times. Rate sheets? Really…

  3. I was personally kind of looking forward to this, I consistently have issues getting a reliable Taxi ride from Northside to the airport, in the last 2 years alone I’ve missed two flights because I was simple stood up for a pre arranged taxi. Just last week trying to get home for Easter I called a Taxi on Monday and arranged pickup at 8:30 to get to the airport at 9:30AM. In the morning he never showed nor answered the phone when I called at 8:30 -8:45 and 9:00. I did however get a call from him at 9:45 saying he could come now but was just leaving west bay. Ended up having to drive myself and leave my car in long term parking at the Airport instead of waiting for him not to show, barely made my flight.

    I’ve also met quite a few people standing in the lobby at Morritt’s who’ve been stood up by a Taxi Driver

    Personally will likely never bother to call a Taxi again in Cayman nor recommend anyone else does. From my experiences they are just not reliable and have no issues leaving you hanging.

    Luckily for me I was able to get an Uber at JFK with no issues.

    Services like this in the US make all the difference in the world.

  4. My comments are NOT aimed against the use of an UBER-like app for Cayman’s taxi drivers.

    My comments are intended to show the dangers of making this app available to ALL AND SUNDRY who would wish to get into the serious business of providing transportation services to the public without any vetting, due-diligence, criminal-background and identity checks….and in Cayman’s case….the right-to-work authorizations that ALL non-Caymanians need to work in Cayman.

    The Public Transport Unit (PTU)…as imperfect a it might be…does these checks and issues taxi licenses to qualified applicants.

    This pilot-project of trying out this new app program for QUALIFIED taxi drivers is the way to go to regularise and standardise FARES and quality of service.

    This editorial suggests that NO Govt involvement should be present in the providing of taxi services to the public and the Uber-like app should be all anyone needs to jump in and drive a taxi.

    Can anyone tell me….in WHICH country does that happen ?

    Even UBER has been brought under Govt regulation in most of the industrialised countries in which it operates.

  5. Not sure about other countries Ricardo, but in the US getting approval to drive for a service like Uber or Lyft isn’t an easy process. All Federal, State and local laws have to be followed by the drivers and the simplest issue such as a speeding ticket or complaint can cost you your contract. There’s also stringent insurance requires for each driver as well as additional coverage’s and policies offered by the parent companies that protect riders. They also do background and drug testing of their drivers.

    Here’s a list of their initial requirements from their website, I’m sure anyone starting a similar business in Cayman would more of less mimic this model. It doesn’t sound like it’ll make it easy for just anyone to get behind the wheel representing this company, on the other hand it does sound like it’ll help getting a taxi a lot easier, just being able to look at your phone and see where the taxi is makes a huge difference.

    I’m quite sure they’ll eventually come to a workable resolution with Government that’ll protect all parties interest because no one can deny the need for this type of service.

    Initial driver requirements for Uber

    You must drive a vehicle that is either a four-door car, truck or minivan. Manual transmission is accepted.
    You are required to be 21 years of age or older (23 depending on your city).
    The intended driver is required to be on the insurance for the vehicle used.
    You must pass a background check.
    A minimum of three years driving experience is mandatory.
    Your vehicle must be fit to pass an inspection from Uber.
    You are required to have a clean driving record.
    You are not able to drive for Uber with a full-size van (Ford Transit, Ford E-Series, GMC Savana)
    Taxis and other marked vehicles are not accepted.
    The use of Crown Victoria is prohibited.
    Uber does not allow the use of salvaged vehicles.