Tomorrow the Wichita City Council will consider new taxicab regulations that, city hall hopes, will improve tax service in Wichita. But the regulations create high barriers to entry that stifle entrepreneurship and market competition, likely dooming the program to fail.
The problem is that some feel that Wichita’s taxicab companies are not delivering good service. There have been complaints about both the drivers and the conditions of cabs. Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer said he was tired of hearing complaints about the taxicabs. He has tired slowly, however, as it’s taken eleven years of Brewer as either city council member or mayor for a solution to be proposed.
In some cities, the permit or medallion to operate a cab costs many thousands of dollars, even hundreds of thousands in New York City and other large cities. Wichita’s proposed fees are not exorbitant: Just $200 annually for a taxicab company and $100 annually per taxicab. (In Wichita there are three taxicab companies, but two have the same ownership.)
Further, Wichita does not restrict the number of taxicab companies, the number of cabs, or prohibit cruising for fares, as do some cities. This sounds like light-handed regulation, which if so, should induce new entrants to the market for providing taxi service. The market competition thereby created would normally be expected to drive down fares and improve service.
But Wichita’s regulations create substantial barriers to entering the taxicab market. Some of the most restrictive include these: A central office, staffed at least 40 hours per week; a dispatch system operating 24 hours per day, seven days per week; enough cabs to operate city-wide service, which the city has determined is ten cabs; and a supervisor on duty at all times cabs are operating.
These requirements, in effect, eliminate the small-time entrepreneur and the solo operator from entering the market. Things like dispatch systems, a central office, a fleet of ten taxicabs, and supervisors sound good. But these are costly, and they aren’t all necessary to get started in the business, or even perhaps to thrive. Since some of the complaints are the lack of available cabs at the airport, we need more cabs, not fewer.
If a person wanted to simply concentrate on picking up fares from the airport or cruising downtown looking for street hails, a dispatch system is not necessary. Neither is a supervisor or an office.
Yes, a cab without a dispatch system will miss out on fares that other cabs will be able to service. But the decision as to whether to use a dispatch system should be made by taxicab drivers or owners, not the city. Certainly, for some drivers and companies the economic benefit of such systems will become apparent, and they will invest in them. Others won’t.
The regulations in Wichita make it difficult for new taxicab operators to enter the market, leaving the city’s citizens and visitors served by a near-monopoly of two companies. That hasn’t worked out well, at least according to city officials. A new government regulator with a new set of regulations to enforce isn’t likely to help create a thriving market for taxicabs in Wichita.
But these market-based considerations and potential solutions, evidently, are not considered by the city. At a workshop on the topic, Council Member Michael O’Donnell (district 4, south and southwest Wichita) noted the near-monopoly of taxicabs companies and asked if the city had looked at ways of creating more competition in the market?
The presenter of the proposed regulations, a public management fellow in the city manager’s office, said, simply, “we have not, no.” (We’re left to wonder if this proposed regulatory expansion is just an exercise, or make-work, for a recent graduate of the school of public administration at Wichita State University.) City Manager Robert Layton interjected, adding “we are believers in the free market system,” saying that he hoped that the new regulations and fare structure would make it easier to enter the market. I don’t think anyone at the meeting picked up on the irony.