Bill Boyarsky
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The real meaning of the taxi fight

taxi-bell-green.jpgThe Los Angeles cab controversy is much more than a fight between old-line cabbies and alternative newcomers armed with apps, their own cars and an entrepreneurial spirit.

It’s a sign of how Los Angeles slowly is changing from a one-person, one-car city of sprawling suburbs to one where an increasing number of residents use trains, buses, bicycles, their own feet and cabs. Going hand in hand with this are multi- story apartments, condos and retail stores around new transit stations.

I discussed this with University of Southern California Professor Maged Dessouky, an expert on ride sharing and other aspects of urban transportation. He said we’re in the midst of a big change in how we get around the streets, freeways and neighborhoods of Los Angeles. But the transformation is occurring slowly, and it’s difficult for a driver, caught in gridlock, to notice.

“Driving alone is becoming more costly in terms of time and dollars,” he said. Over the years, he said, developments such as better connected Metro lines, an increased use of charging for use of congestion free lanes on freeways (now in use on the 110), higher gas and parking prices and more accessible cab and ride sharing will change ingrained Los Angeles habits. “We will see people driving alone but that will not be the dominant mode,” he said. “People are shifting away from it now.”

My interest in the subject was piqued by e-mail from the big public relations firm Edelman. No, it wasn’t Edelman’s new employee, former Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, a senior adviser. Rather the pitch came from a persuasive man named Andrew Flick. He talked me into interviewing a client, Sanders Partee, who heads a company called Taxi Magic.

With Taxi Magic, you download an app and, with it, order a traditional cab and watch its progress on your mobile phone screen as it heads your way. At present, Yellow and Beverly Hills cabs are on the list but Partee is planning to expand. Other app-connected alternatives have vehicles usually driven by the car owners. Among them are SideCar, Lyft, Zimride and Uber. Taxi companies, regulated by cities, have fought them. But the State Public Utilities Commission approved them under a category called “transportation network companies” and permits them to operate if they obey a number of regulations, including carrying a minimum $1 million insurance, have a zero tolerance of drugs or alcohol and criminal background checks for drivers. Taxi companies wanted the Los Angeles City Council to appeal the ruling, but the council declined. Mayor Eric Garcetti, an app and technology guy, agreed.

Partee supports the traditional cab companies, which Taxi Magic serves. But he said the trend to a variety of options for riders “is irreversible. The sharing economy is real; the changes in attitudes toward one car, one person is irreversible. People will use alternative means like buses, trains, short-term rentals, and the traditional taxis will play a significant role.”

I can see it a few blocks from where I live. The Casden development—that’s a whole other column—will be built at the Metro train station at Sepulveda and Pico. Apartments and retail will flood the area with more people and shoppers. They’ll need an alternative to the packed streets and jammed 405 and 10 freeways. Alternative companies, competing for riders, will hopefully bring prices down from the present rates. I’ll take the train downtown or to Santa Monica, and a cab home if it’s too late. The new L.A. sounds good to me.

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