How to simplify the LAX experience: Grant ride-share services access

How to simplify the LAX experience: Grant ride-share services access
Cars, busses and vans pack the departure level outside LAX's Terminal 4. Ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft cannot pick up arriving passengers at the airport. (Los Angeles Times)

Flying into Los Angeles International Airport is annoying and stressful. The terminals are outdated, the signage is confusing and, after fighting the hordes to pick up your luggage, it's difficult to leave because ground transportation is in such a sorry state. The Flyaway shuttle service, despite recent improvements, is erratic. A much-anticipated regional rail connection for the airport is years away. And it seems to take forever to pick up taxis, which of course aren't cheap. It costs roughly $50 to get downtown and up to $40 if you're headed to Santa Monica, depending on traffic.

There's one small change that could improve the LAX experience for many thousands of travelers each week: Los Angeles World Airports, or LAWA, the city agency that runs LAX, could allow ride-sharing services such as Uber, Lyft and Sidecar to pick up arriving passengers.

Long before anyone had ever used a smartphone app to hail a car, the taxi supply to LAX was strictly regulated and artificially limited.

According to research by L.A. Weekly's Gene Maddaus, there are about 2,300 cabs allowed to operate within the city. Each is assigned a letter from A to E, and may only complete airport pickups on the day corresponding to their letter. This rotation system, the result of an agreement between taxi companies and LAWA, means longer and slower taxi queues for travelers than is necessary.

Many LAX customers would choose to circumvent this silliness by ordering an Uber — if only that were possible. As the law stands, ride-sharing services can drop passengers off at LAX. But only Uber's black cars and SUVs with commercial licenses can pick them up.

These luxury services cost $75 to downtown and $59 to Santa Monica. If Lyft and Uber's more mass-market products were offered for LAX pickups, fares would surely be cheaper. (It's difficult to predict by exactly how much, because of airport fees. But here's what we do know: The mass-market UberX charges 90 cents a mile in Los Angeles as opposed to $3.55 a mile for black-car service.)

In late 2014, it looked as though a deal to let ride-sharing services pick up LAX customers was imminent. Talks involving LAWA, ride-sharing services, the Los Angeles Taxicab Commission and the influential bloc of taxi companies servicing LAX were, apparently, going well.

And yet here we are in April without a deal. What's taking so long? According to sources from the ride-sharing and taxi industries, progress has slowed because of both personnel changes and disagreement over how, precisely, ride-sharing airport pickups will work. Meanwhile, LAWA is planning to reissue a draft agreement on ride-sharing services for public comment and to solicit feedback on potential airport fees.

When I asked City Hall for comment, Mayor Eric Garcetti's associate director for communications, Vicki Curry, told me "Mayor Garcetti has been and remains committed to providing Angelenos multiple safe and convenient options for getting where they need to go. He continues to push for more transportation innovations and solutions and is working closely with ride-hailing companies to ensure customer convenience and public safety for users in Los Angeles."

He may be committed, but while the various parties hash out their differences, Angelenos have to wait in line.

Los Angeles' taxi drivers, for their part, seem to oppose allowing Uber and others to pick up at LAX. Of course they would: They are struggling to retain business in the face of much more convenient and customer-friendly competitors.

But some in local government are siding with the upstarts. On April 2, Autumn R. Burke, the state assemblywoman for LAX and surrounding neighborhoods, wrote a letter to LAWA President Sean Burton urging permitting of ride-sharing services at the airport. In her letter, Burke noted that 300,000 Lyft rides had originated or ended in her district in a six-month period, and that 2,000 of her constituents work as Lyft drivers.

It's true that Uber, Lyft and Sidecar aren't ideal corporate citizens. They've muscled their way onto the taxi scene; they've cut corners when it comes to background checks and drug testing for drivers; and they often treat their drivers — who are independent contractors — poorly. Nevertheless, ride-sharing services have become an invaluable part of the transit mix in this sprawling city of nearly 4 million people with just a handful of subway and light-rail lines.

Ride-sharing services are already allowed to pick up passengers at other airports in California and throughout the United States. You can hail an Uber at John Wayne Airport, San Francisco International, Nashville International and Denver International.

Sooner rather than later, travelers to LAX deserve to have the same option. This isn't about turf wars or protecting revenue, it's about serving travelers.

Neal Ungerleider is a reporter for Fast Company magazine and technology industry consultant who lives in Los Angeles.


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