Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto is pushing back against the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission, which has been leaning on the city to pass rules that would have the effect of banning the operation of ride-share services like UberX and Lyft. Indeed, rules should change, agreed Peduto in a press conference yesterday. But it should be the Public Utilities Commission’s, to allow ride-share companies the latitude to operate freely in Pittsburgh and elsewhere in the state — “like,” said Peduto, “has been done in California.”
The cabbies/ride-share dynamic is well-trodden territory at this point, but less thought of is the Public Utilities Commission/ride-share dynamic. There are perhaps few sets of words in the English language less exciting than “public utilities commission,” but their work is incredibly important. State PUCs, as they’re short-handed, set the rules for telecommunications, power, water, and, yes, transportation. There are many billions of dollars worth of business at stake, and much consumer interest, but PUCs are criticized for operating in functional secrecy. More to the point here, they tend to seek stability in markets, not surprising given that they’re thinking about the resources under their purview as utilities, essential to the functioning of the state.
The for-hire ride market has been raising some interesting tensions between states and cities, for cities are proving themselves willing to expose themselves to the vagaries of a less-regulated landscape in exchange for the benefits of innovation. That’s especially true when it comes to cities where, like in Pittsburgh, being on the front-lines of the taxicab market means being frustrated. The Pittsburgh Business Times reports:
While using Lyft twice successfully in the last week, Peduto personally estimated he’s failed to receive cab service at least 20 times over the years, with [City Councilman Dan] Gilman adding he’s experienced similar treatment countless times.
It’s not as if frustrations aren’t part and parcel of other business areas PUCs regulate. Perhaps the one thing more ire-raising than a cab not showing up is the cable repair person not showing up. But the fairly sudden appearance on the scene of an alternative, in the form of Lyft and Uber and so on, means that annoyed local officials have first-hand evidence of another way of this “utility” operating.
Add in an innovation-minded mayor like Peduto — read here for my interview with Debra Lam, Pittsburgh’s new Chief Innovation and Performance Officer — and you see cities ready to push back against the rules being made for them in PUC offices in Harrisburg or what have you.
Nancy Scola is a Washington, DC-based journalist whose work tends to focus on the intersections of technology, politics, and public policy. Shortly after returning from Havana she started as a tech reporter at POLITICO.