In all the time that I’ve spent learning as much as I can about Uber (and Lyft and Sidecar et al.) I have wondered: What’s next? Homobiles aren’t the future; what they do is too weird and specific and based on the personalities and ideals of the people involved to apply to an industry this large. What they are is a future – a local, grassroots alternative to the Clash of the Titans game that is playing out now between startups that are trying to become what Amazon is for books or Google is for search.
As far as tech goes, it is pure 2000s: Passengers request rides by texting their name and location to dispatch, and dispatch, who is usually a former bike-messenger dispatcher with a laptop, texts that information to the drivers.
I have looked, and have not found, any equivalent to it across the country – though the idea of running your own taxi service is so basic that it must have been created and recreated a thousand times over, especially in immigrant neighborhoods. I’ve come to the conclusion that what makes Homobiles so unusual is the degree to which it is able to operate out in the open. I also suspect that, since it began, Homobiles has had allies in city and state government who believed in what it was doing and worked behind the scenes to keep XXX Dating it from getting shut down.
In those ancient days of four years ago, when Homobiles first started, Lyft didn’t even exist (it was still a “true” ridesharing service called Zimride), and Uber was still a black-car service; but all that was about to change. Now these “we-say-we’re-not-taxis-but-boy-sometimes-do-we-act-like-taxis” companies are legally called Transportation Network Companies (TNCs).
Homobiles was and remains a seat-of the pants operation, founded by Breedlove, the former owner of a bike-messenger service called Lickety Split
Homobiles is not a TNC. For one thing, it still doesn’t have an app, and its status as a nonprofit puts it under different jurisdiction. But when the TNC designation was created by the California Public Utilities in 2013, the new rules contained an unexpected shout-out to Homobiles.
Homobiles was formed to meet the needs of consumers whose transportation needs are not being adequately met by either taxi cabs or limousines. We applaud the founders of Homobiles for establishing a non-profit 501(c)(3)volunteer organization that caters to the underserved communities of San Francisco.
In theory, Homobiles doesn’t pick up anyone who hails cabs in the street; but in practice, it has cultivated a relationship with gay bars across the city, and its drivers frequently appear outside them around closing time
In California, at least, the seemingly ironclad monopoly that taxis have held over private transit in the state for decades is broken at the moment – which may have a lot to do with why, right now, Homobiles is able to operate openly. The question is, will this last? For all their talk of disruption and open playing fields, it’s unlikely that TNCs have done this without having their own monopoly dreams.
Taxi companies have not been doing right by America’s cities for a long time. They’ve used their political sway to get away with treating their employees badly, and they’ve used it to shut down potential rivals like dollar vans and jitneys in low-income neighborhoods, while continuing to ignore and underserve those neighborhoods themselves.
But however convenient TNCs are right now, a TNC monopoly is not a good idea. A TNC duopoly isn’t a good idea, either. Allowing Uber and Lyft to keep permanent records of the places that every one of their passengers has visited is a civil-liberties nightmare. So is the way that TNCs can redline certain passengers and drop them entirely from its transit network.