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Ideas for the Future and Bernie Sanders

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While Bernie Sanders has his programs and important ideas to try to change our country for the better, there are other issues which are equally important for our future.

I was at brunch with friends, and we started talking about how changes in the film business – live streaming and the like – make it more and more likely that fewer and fewer people with be going out to movie theaters. Such technological changes mean that the film industry will continue to change. Theaters may wither and die, in the same way that film rental stores are going out of business.

The changes in technology can and should be changing other areas of economy, A major component that should be changing is the auto industry. Relatively speaking, the manufacture of automobiles is slipping away from the United States to foreign countries where manufacturing costs are lower. And yet sales of privately owned automobiles continue to rise here, and this despite ever greater traffic problems, the increased cost of repairing roads, pollution and its impact on climate change, parking problems and costs, the need for more and more traffic police, and a host of other related problems. (The United States had 809 vehicles for every 1,000 people in 2011, the highest in the world after three tiny countries: San Marino, Monaco and Lichtenstein. By way of comparison, Canada had 662 vehicles per 1,000, France had 578, and Denmark had 480. We could certainly use fewer vehicles.)

The “shared economy” exemplified by Uber and Lyft may be an answer to these issues in congested metropolitan areas. The Uber/Lyft solution uses technology – computers, GPS systems, and cell phones – to make it possible for people in certain areas to give up their private cars and rely on a shared system. But it does not help and is likely not to help people in more suburban and rural areas. Is there a way to take this model and make it more universal? I think that there is, and it would not take a lot to make it effective.

“While Los Angeles city leaders and state lawmakers are calling for tighter regulations for ride-sharing companies such as Uber and Lyft, there’s talk in Orange County about doing the opposite: deregulating the taxicab industry.

“Orange County Supervisor Todd Spitzer on Monday asked the county’s transportation authority to find ways to relax rules and fees for taxicab companies and drivers.

“Each city would have to vote independently on specifics.

“’Instead of allowing the legislature to regulate Uber, the solution is to deregulate the entire market and make it a level playing field so we don’t over burden the taxi industry,’” he said during the regular meeting of the Orange County Transportation Authority.”

If you’re going to deregulate Uber, Lyft, and taxicabs, why not go one step further and allow all owners of private cars to use them to make money with minimum regulation?   Uber and Lyft work because (1) drivers and passengers are covered by large umbrella insurance policies and (2) there is at least some security to try to assure that passengers do not try to rob drivers and vice-versa. The result of these two social mechanisms makes drivers more comfortable about taking strangers into their cars and passengers more comfortable about driving with strangers. What if these two innovations – plus a few others – were made universally available to all car owners and all potential passengers?

Suppose that every licensed driver were automatically offered registration in a “shared ride” program. (Notice that I am not insisting that the program be government run; in theory it could be operated by one or more private corporations, although the computer program for passenger pickup should be universal and used by all participants in the program if it is to work. Uber and Lyft do not share their programs with each other). If a driver wants to be involved in the program, his or her record would be vetted for safety (no DUIs or serious driving violations; no criminal record), and then his or her car would be outfitted with a device to record passenger trips in the car. In return the driver would be given a special parking and driving sticker, allowing him or her to use a special part of the road for driving and special parking privileges. The sticker would be temporary and would only be renewed so long as the driver actually drove passengers during the temporary period. The car would contain a clear identification of the driver. Every driver would be covered by a universal insurance program covering his vehicle, liability, and injury to any passenger regardless of whether he happened to be sharing a ride or not.

Meanwhile, people without driver’s licenses could obtain special passenger IDs. The passengers would likewise be vetted for criminal records. Passengers would register one or more credit cards with the shared ride program. They would be able to hail a driver through a computer program online and available through smart phones. When they entered a car, they would register with the driver using their driving license or passenger license, and they would receive a receipt showing the driver’s identification. The driver’s recording device would send all the information to the share ride program.

Notice that this program is similar to Uber and Lyft, with a number of important differences. First, the insurance policy would cover the driver and any passengers regardless of whether the driver happened to sharing a ride at the time of any accident. Second, drivers would be encouraged to join in the program because of the special parking and driving rights as well as the right to purchase cheap gasoline (in the same way that Costco members can purchase cheaper gasoline). Both drivers and passengers would be vetted for criminal records. These differences would make it immediately advantageous for drivers to participate in the program and make sure that they shared their cars at least the minimum amount of rides required by the program.

In addition to the foregoing, drivers would earn money for the sharing of their cars. There would be a fee by the program which would cover administrative costs, but drivers would have a financial incentive to share in addition to the ability to buy cheap insurance and gasoline and get special parking and driving rights. On the other hand, passengers would enjoy the ability to ride with all the drivers in the program. They would pay a price high enough to make the program function but low enough to inspire individuals to give up their private cars and share rides.

This program as a whole would have enormous social advantages. The special insurance, gasoline, parking and driving privileges would make many drivers eager to join the program. The special parking privileges would make it much more difficult for people to drive without being in the program (unless they wanted to pay to park in parking lots and drive on more crowded roads). Eventually, people unwilling or unable to drive in the program would become passengers, but they, too, would enjoy reasonable rates. Overall, the number of cars on the road would drop, making parking and driving easier, reducing pollution, reducing the cost of road repair, reducing the need for more traffic police, and the like.

Of course, there would be profound opposition to such a program from car manufacturers and sellers, insurance companies, gasoline companies, Uber, Lyft, taxi companies, and all the other organizations (construction companies, police unions, and the like) who benefit from greater traffic congestion and car sales, but the overall positive effect on society should be beneficial.

Notice, too, that although legislation would be required to put this program into effect, it is not necessarily true that it would need to be fully regulated or managed by the government. The insurance could be provided by private corporations. The drivers could sign up through private corporations. The computer system designed to guide drivers and passengers could be through a private corporation (although it would have to be a single entity in order to make the system function). The “market system” could be used. However, if the system were not government run, it would be effectively a monopoly, and outside governmental regulation would be needed to prevent the system operators from overcharging.

Notice also that nothing would require all car owners to participate. However, the system could be adjusted as needed to make it more and more difficult for purely private cars to drive on the road and find parking. For example, even highways that were four lanes in each direction could be reserved with three lanes being used for “shared riding” cars. Such provisions would mean that car owners would need to participate in the program or else become passengers because it would be too difficult to drive in a purely private way.

Finally, the system could be tweaked as necessary to assure that there were enough willing drivers and passengers. If society wanted to, it could adjust the system to allow purely private cars to function, although such cars would presumably be driven by the very wealthy and could be taxed heavily due to non-participation in the program.

In addition to cutting congestion, parking issues, pollution, overproduction of cars, and the like, the system would have social advantages. It would cause people to “share their space” with others and learn about how others in society live. People who would not normally talk together would start learning how to do that. While it would reduce the need for employees in some parts of the economy, it would increase the need in others (I.e., there would be more people driving for a living), and hopefully the money saved by passengers and earned by drivers would balance through the economy and keep it moving forward. In any event, this system (or one like it) could be tried out in a city like Los Angeles on an experimental basis and see whether it would work as well as it promises to.

(There are problems which may arise. For example, if a lot of people are kept out of the system because they have criminal records, some solution would need to be offered to transport them to work and other places. One possible solution would be special vans which would go into “lockdown mode” if a passenger tried to rob someone. I am sure that there are other solutions which would discourage robbery and yet allow persons with criminal records to participate in the transportation system.)

I would hope that a politician like Bernie Sanders or Jerry Brown would see the benefits of a program like this. Although mass transit can help reduce our horrible dependency on private cars, it is expensive and does not work well in cities that sprawl (like Los Angeles). On the other hand, Los Angeles has millions of private cars that could be used for transportation of more than one person if we only restructured a few rules to allow that to occur.

 

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Michael T. Hertz, a retired attorney and law professor, has lived and worked in California, New York, Rhode Island, Maine, Canada and France.  His writing subjects include France in the 1960’s, post-Civil War America, and present-day California and Canada.

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