Taxis fight ridesharing program for attention of Houstonians
It’s no secret that Houston has a major problem with traffic.
UH and the surrounding city are constantly looking for ways to reduce congestion and pollution.
For example, UH has programs like the Commuter Club and car sharing that provide alternatives to driving one’s own car everywhere.
Director of Parking and Transportation Services Robert Browand said the Commuter Club — exclusive to faculty and staff — was created to reduce peak-hour commuter trips to the campus.
“This will reduce the demand for parking and contribute to UH’s green initiatives by reducing carbon emissions of vehicles traveling to and from campus,” Browand said.
The Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County’s public transportation Q Fare Card provides students 50 percent off fares.
The Commuter Club encourages alternative transportation such as bus, light rail, carpool, bicycle and walking, but car sharing offers commuting students a way to leave campus by providing access to rental cars for $8 per hour.
The goal of car sharing is for students to “always have access to a car, even when (they) didn’t drive (their) own car to campus,” according to the UH Parking and Transportation website.
In addition to the current methods of transportation that UH students have access to, a different method of transportation is slowly making its way into our city.
In relation to the current change in transportation, ridesharing describes companies — similar to taxi cabs — that connect people who need rides to people who have cars.
According to a change.org petition directed at the Houston City Council and Mayor Annise Parker, ridesharing would connect technology to transportation.
“Passengers and drivers are connected through an intuitive smartphone application. With a tap of a button, a passenger can request a ride. Upon making the request, the passenger will receive an estimated time of arrival and can follow the driver’s progress on a GPS-enabled map,” according to the petition. “The passenger also receives a picture of the car and driver, rates their driver after each ride and has access to 24-hour customer service. These features provide an added level of safety not found in today’s transportation systems.”
Some of these smartphone-operated companies include services like Lyft, Uber, Sidecar and Wingz — all of which are viable commercial vehicle options that could come to Houston.
These car services are distinguished from ordinary taxi services not only by their technological aspect but sometimes by large pink mustaches that are pasted to Lyft cars’ grilles.
Ridesharing companies are not confined by the public transportation system; therefore, these companies can charge however they please.
These cars can be more aesthetically pleasing than a yellow taxi cab, thus drawing in a more exclusive and technology-hungry crowd. Moreover, these ridesharing programs are cheaper than the average cab.
This makes one wonder where the current taxi services would exist in a world full of mustached cars. This uncertainty gives existing taxi services big concerns.
According to a February article by the Houston Chronicle, cabbies are upset about the idea of ridesharing and are worried by the possibility of job loss.
Reportedly, two council committees met to consider how to enable Uber and Lyft to operate legally in Houston. These companies are now avoiding regulations by providing free rides, which the industry deems unlawful.
Overall, people have mixed feelings regarding the safety of ridesharing. While many praise ridesharing as a precaution against drunk driving, others worry about the legal liability of ridesharing, since the drivers use their own vehicles.
According to the Transportation Research Board, “the type of insurance available to individual carpoolers and organizations involved in promoting ridesharing depends largely on the type of entity involved and on the type of vehicle which coverage is sought.”
Because of this, insurance is typically dependent on the owner of the ridesharing vehicle, causing many to worry about the legal issues surrounding the possibility of a car accident.
Ridesharing companies are not financially covered in the same way that traditional taxi companies are, but state governments are working to change this.
The Washington Post reported that last year California became the first to set regulations requiring ridesharing companies to carry commercial liability insurance policies worth at least $1 million.
Adding a more innovative mode of transportation to the city sounds helpful — especially if it is cheaper than the average cab — but these ridesharing programs need to work out the legal kinks in their system to effectively operate in a city like Houston.
However, after the legal situations are worked out, ridesharing companies could be a good lower-cost alternative to taxis for UH students who are technologically savvy.
Reduced traffic and more transportation options sounds good, but another benefit that ridesharing and taxi services are barely promoting is that of reducing drinking and driving casualties.
According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Texas led the nation in drunken driving deaths in 2011.
Although Houston currently has services such as Safe Ride Solutions and Be My DD that cater to Houstonians, UH is also working on a program specifically for students.
The future of safely escorting inebriated students at UH lies in CougCars, a free program that aims to launch in Fall 2014.
Founded by biology senior Michael Garcia-Fitzgerald, CougCars is designed to escort inebriated individuals back to the comfort of their beds for no charge.
However, before CougCars can become fully functional, Garcia-Fitzgerald and other members of the organization have to go through legal precautions, much like the ridesharing programs that are steering their way to Houston.
“Every car will be rented from either Hertz or Zipcar for liability reasons. Every car will have a guy/girl combo for security reasons,” Garcia-Fitzgerald said. “Before operations begin, all members will go through a thorough training process that will include defensive driving, first aid, self-defense, accident preparation and risk management.”
Operational from Thursday to Saturday from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m., CougCars aims to bring a greater emphasis on drinking responsibility, Garcia-Fitzgerald said.
“Our top two goals are to prevent the probable effects of drunk driving and to get our students into the habit of being responsible adults by having a plan of action before choosing to drink,” he said.
With numerous travel options appearing around the University and the city, it’s difficult for a Cougar to choose.
Regardless of the ultimate decision, whether students decide to use ridesharing, Commuter Club, taxis or CougCars to get where they need to go, anything that reduces pollution and the competition for a parking spot is favorable.
Senior staff columnist Kelly Schafler is a print journalism junior and may be reached at [email protected]