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Editorial: Ride-hailing needs statewide regulations

This is the Uber Year for Albany. The inexplicably difficult effort to allow ride-hailing services to operate in upstate New York seems at times to dominate a debate that also includes such critical issues as education, health care, ethics, economic development and more.

That’s how Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing services want it and, frankly, it’s not inappropriate. The Empire State is the Backwoods State when it comes to acknowledging and staying current with a changing economy, in this case, as it applies to transportation. Now it’s crunch time as the governor and legislative leaders race to this Friday’s budget deadline.

Among the important issues to be sorted out is how to regulate the industry. Should Albany implement rules that apply around the state, or should municipalities be charged with that responsibility? The answer is simultaneously obvious and complex: Only a statewide set of rules makes sense, given the nature of the business, but the rules should apply across the board, to include traditional taxi companies. Neither should be put at a competitive disadvantage.

That makes this a propitious moment to re-examine all of the regulations that govern taxi services. Which are truly necessary, such as those governing safety and liability, and which can be modified or discarded? Why not just deregulate the industry except for those critical rules that protect riders, drivers and other motorists?

Admittedly, that’s not a very New York thought. This state loves to regulate, regardless of need or impact. But the internet is changing the playing field, and the rules need to follow. This is the time to reconsider them.

While municipal rules may serve some modest purposes – besides filling the coffers – they are likely to dissuade drivers from signing up, fearing the confusion of regulations changing as municipal boundaries do.

The better approach is to craft a reasonable set of regulations covering the entire state, with the possible exception of New York City, which genuinely has unique needs. They should apply as evenly as possible to the taxi industry and ride-hailing services, just as regulations governing accommodations should not favor services such as Airbnb over traditional bed and breakfasts.

Leaders of ride-hailing companies say most states with the services have taken the statewide approach to regulation, and some others are moving in that direction. States with local control, including Florida, are both confusing and have produced coordinated efforts by taxi companies and regulators to limit ride-hailing, they say. Clarity and consistency should be the goals

It is essential, though – especially to Buffalo – for Albany to get off the dime and allow upstate to join transportation’s 21st century.

A number of important issues need to be considered as part of this effort. They include the need to ensure that a minimum percentage of vehicles is handicap-accessible. That’s reasonable, and those discussions should already have been long underway.

This is going to be a stressor on the traditional taxi industry. It’s going to be disruptive, but it’s also inevitable. Ride-hailing is here to stay. It’s a natural outgrowth of the digital economy. It’s efficient and popular and it needs to be approved, with sensible statewide regulations, with this budget.

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