It won’t dominate coverage of this August’s primary. But this past month, rideshare companies like UberX and Lyft opened their checkbooks and paid for enough signatures to force a summer referendum on repeal of new City Council regulations that also, coincidentally, legalized their industry.

It’s easy to get confused about what’s at stake, because ridesharing — in which people use their phone apps to order up a ride from amateur drivers who register with a company — appeals to the young and technologically hip. They’re popular services, not only because the experience is novel and fun but because they’re significantly cheaper than traditional taxis.

And there’s a reason they’re cheaper than taxi operators offering essentially the same service: They don’t have the same overhead because they’ve been entirely unregulated and don’t need to meet the same standards that taxis do for things like driver training, vehicle safety, liability insurance and paying the drivers a living wage.

The August vote will be yet another example of a private industry manipulating the initiative process for self-interested ends — and having the financial resources to do in a few weeks (gather thousands of signatures to qualify for the ballot) what grassroots advocates for any number of issues struggle for months to do.

The same wealth will mean that the anti-regulation campaign will be far better-funded and more visible than the “yes” campaign, which in turn will likely be largely funded by decimated local taxi companies screaming about the unfair competitive advantage being enjoyed by unregulated rideshare startups.

The very referendum itself, of course, proves the taxi companies’ point: Rideshare companies wouldn’t spend all this money on a referendum in the first place if it wasn’t about trying to make a lot more money by staying unregulated. Simply filing the initiative, which triggered suspension of the new regulations, gives the industry four months of higher profits — far more than it cost the industry to gather the referendum signatures.

By manipulating the electoral process then, self-interested companies like these win regardless of the voters’ eventual decision; the electoral outcome only determines how much additional profit they’ll get. It’s little wonder this is becoming an increasingly popular corporate tactic.

‘Gypsy cabs’

Beyond the corruption of the initiative process represented by a few well-heeled companies buying a vote, there’s the matter of the actual issues at stake. Any examination of the package that the City Council passed needs to start with the determination by City Attorney Pete Holmes that, as it currently operates — with unlicensed and unregulated drivers — the entire rideshare industry is illegal. They are gypsy cabs — only imagine gypsy cabs being organized and bankrolled by Wall Street financiers. What we will vote on in August is those financiers fighting for their right to continue operating illegally.

The City Council package legalized this industry — really, the only sensible course of action, given its popularity and its use of new technology not anticipated by current laws. But that reality had to be balanced against the complete lack of standards the rideshare companies have needed to meet compared to more traditional services. By fighting those standards and getting them suspended, the rideshare companies are also fighting against their own legalization. 

Racism rationale

All this is obscured by rideshares’ popularity, amidst much rhetoric about the city crushing innovation and suchlike. But there’s another, uglier subtext: One reason the rideshares are so popular is that young, urban Seattle hipsters would rather get rides from other young, urban Seattle hipsters than from the immigrants who have come to dominate Seattle’s traditional taxi industry.

The rideshare vote will be an early referendum on what kind of city is being created as city leaders continue to destroy affordable housing and force middle-class residents to flee for less-expensive suburbs.

Racism in Seattle is usually of the genteel, liberal variety: There’s no racial animus here. We’re all good liberals who don’t tolerate such things; we just like hanging out with our friends — who then get huge structural advantages (rideshare companies) over other people (taxi operators) trying to do the same thing.

It’s the same rationale used to justify covenant restrictions 50 years ago over what races could own property: Don’t we all just want to live in a neighborhood with people who look and talk like we do?

Ironically, Seattle’s insecurities around being a world-class city are on full display with issues like this. Genuinely world-class cities are melting pots: They’re magnets for every type of person from around the country and world seeking a better life. Provincial backwaters, on the other hand, tend to be cities where everyone looks and acts the same.

It turns out there’s a lot of money to be made exploiting people’s desires to live in a provincial backwater.

GEOV PARRISH is cofounder of Eat the State! He also reviews news of the week on “Mind Over Matters” on KEXP 90.3 FM.

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