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.