House Subcommittee Hearing Misses Big Picture in Transportation Safety and Security

On Wednesday, October 16th, the House Subcommittee on Highways and Transit held a hearing on “Examining the Future of Transportation Network Companies: Challenges and Opportunities.” As transportation network companies (TNCs, or ride hailing) mature into established companies and their business models change, governments are increasingly apt to regulate safety, environment, and equity of the services. The hearing focused mainly on safety and security of TNC users, spurred in part by the recent murder of Samantha Josephson when she entered a vehicle falsely posing as her ride hail. The hearing also covered discussed driver protections, equity, and the interface of the government and public agencies with private TNC companies.

Uber, Lyft, and Via all declined to participate in the hearing, drawing ire from both members and witnesses. Representatives Chris Smith (R-NJ) and Tom Suozzi (D-NY) impressed upon the need for action in Congress to regulate TNCs, pointing to the bipartisan, bicameral bill they introduced (the original version was H.R. 3262 in June 2019, with an updated version, H.R. 4686, introduced this week). This bill would tie state transportation funding to requirement for the companies such as requiring a QR code on each vehicle, more visible signs in the vehicles, license plates on both the front and back of each vehicle, and that would prohibit selling TNC vehicle signs in the open market.

A few members did bring up the importance of not stifling TNCs as they can provide more people more access to some populations, including people in rural areas with limited public transit and people who cannot drive. But the connection between safety and security in the overall transportation network and specifically in TNCs was not made. For example, many users choose ride hail options specifically for the security benefits. Sexual harassment on public transportation is common in many parts of the world, and empty platforms, having to wait for a bus or train, or the walk to or from the transit stop are often either perceived or shown to produce risk of harassment, assault, or murder. Ride hailing should be as safe and secure as possible, as should all transportation options.

The hearing did not cover other TNC-related issues that have made recent headlines, including their role in congestion, pollution, and equity issues, which also relate to public health and safety.

Overall, Congress can only do so much to regulate TNCs, as states and localities have jurisdiction over the ridehail industry and many other areas of concern such as driver wages, license plate regulations, licensing, and background checks for drivers. However, finding ways to tie federal funds and programs to requirements could give Congress the opportunity to set standards. Many TNCs are currently looking to partner with cities or transit agencies to provide subsidized rides in certain areas or to and from transit stations, and programs such as these could be the first to see influence on TNCs from the Federal Government.

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