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In my last post, I shared my thoughts on why large ridesharing services around the world will recover and thrive after the global COVID-19 pandemic is over, and meaningfully replace public transportation everywhere. When will the virus be under control is unclear, and we should prepare for the worst. But whenever that future becomes reality, the transportation service that ridesharing provides will become essential, almost akin to power, water, and broadband Internet.

Which begs the question: how should ridesharing be regulated?

I believe it should be like buses and restaurants.

Why Buses and Restaurants?

Ridesharing will functionally become a type of public utility; it already is in certain cities with dense coverage. There are many regulated utilities to look at as references, but none of them are similar enough to ridesharing to justify copying and pasting the same regulatory framework onto ridesharing.

Taxi is the obvious analogy. The battles in the U.S. between ridesharing companies and taxis via the local city governments, which typically regulate the taxis, are well documented at this point. Where the current taxi regulations fail, and thus should not be replicated, is that it artificially lowers supply via the so-called medallion system. This system gives way to corruption and political patronage -- the number of taxis a company can operate in a city is based on who you can lobby in the government, not consumers’ demand for your service. The ample supply of drivers on these ridesharing platforms is what makes the service convenient and attractive to the riders vis-a-vis normal taxis. Market dynamics and competition for users should dictate the supply, not artificial limitations based on political connections in the guise of regulation, and that element of ridesharing should remain untouched.

Some other regulatory examples are pure public utilities, like power and water suppliers, and private-company-provided utilities, like cable, broadband Internet, and telecom services. In the U.S., these tend to be “regional monopolies”, where there is a single provider in a geographical region and the consumers don’t have any choice. The reasoning behind these monopolies are generally acceptable; it takes a lot of investment to build and maintain these basic infrastructures, so recreating them for the purpose of competition makes little macro-economic sense. However, the same reasoning also is not applicable to ridesharing services, because they are asset-light and infrastructure-light to begin with; they don’t need to build and maintain any physical infrastructure.

To me, ridesharing should be regulated as a hybrid of public transportation, like buses, and restaurants. Because ridesharing is already a form of public transportation and will become more so in the future, which I’ve discussed at length in this earlier post, they should abide by the current public transportation safety standards for both the vehicles and the drivers. Some new guidelines and processes will have to be developed by the relevant state government commissions and law enforcement authorities to execute this (there are definitely more cars and drivers, than buses and bus drivers), but the substance of the regulations don’t need to differ much.

The cleanliness and health impact of the ridesharing cars can be treated like restaurants, because the type of concerns consumers will have post-COVID-19 will be similar. People will be cautious, if not paranoid, for a long time about the cleanliness of the things they touch, sit on, and of course eat. Restaurants will need an upgrade in cleanliness in general and the regulatory efforts to push forward those changes ought to be expanded to apply to ridesharing vehicles, without reinventing the wheels.

Regulating ridesharing as a hybrid of buses and restaurants can help ensure a baseline quality of service and trust. As for ridesharing’s other characteristics, they should be left alone and up to market dynamics to sort themselves out.

(These are mostly U.S.-based examples and analogies, but I think the principles can be applied in other countries too and adapted to their existing regulatory frameworks.)

Of course, there is always the option of no regulation at all. I don’t think that’s the right direction, not just because regulatory guarantees of safety and health are necessary for consumer protection reasons, but also because smart regulations will actually help these ridesharing companies improve their credibility and profitability, and thus economic sustainability.

Regulations Improve Credibility

Every ridesharing service has had its fair share of safety issues and public relations disasters when it reaches a big enough scale. Both Uber and Lyft have a long list of severe safety problems -- from sexual assaults to crashes to even murder -- happening on their platform. Didi Chuxing has had similarly egregious violations. Grab is no different.

Ridesharing services all have a credibility problem with the public. And instead of fighting regulators at every turn, being open to smart regulations will help its credibility and improve the service quality. And regulations don’t automatically impede profitability. No one in the U.S. would open an account with a bank that is not approved by the FDIC (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation). Banks are making money just fine.

Similarly, a ridesharing platform that has the stamps of approval of relevant regulatory agencies that can ensure transportation safety, drivers’ background check, and health and cleanliness of the cars will attract more riders, not lose them.

It’s a question of balance, not either or.

Credibility Improves Profitability

Of course, we cannot ignore the reality that these ridesharing platforms are run by for-profit private companies, all of which built their services with venture capital money. So they are under pressure to deliver, not just some kind of profit, but hyper-growth, massive profit.

Interestingly, regulations that enhance these ridesharing services’ credibility may improve their profitability in the post-COVID-19 world. Yes, there will be new compliance costs. But the cost of acquiring drivers will also go down due to massive unemployment, as I posited in my previous writing. Furthermore, the compliance costs can be mitigated by a pricing scheme that is competitive with public transportation, while providing a much healthier and cleaner transportation option -- something I bet many people will be willing to pay for with an extra buck or two per ride.

Will all that lead to a profit margin large enough to meet the expectations of VCs or the most optimistic Wall Street analysts? Probably not, but that’s an expectation setting problem, not a business model problem.

The hard truth is ridesharing companies are not pure tech companies. They are what Social Capital Founder and CEO, Chamath Palihaptiya, calls “tech-enabled hybrids”. It’s a perfectly fine business model, but one that should not command the same high valuation or earning multiples as pure tech companies like Google or Facebook. And it’s long overdue for this difference to be reflected in the way these ridesharing businesses are operated, capitalized, perceived, and valued.

The coronavirus pandemic will lead to rethinking and reshuffling in every industry; ridesharing will be no different. By treating and regulating ridesharing platforms like buses and restaurants, they will become a service that is essential, trustworthy, and economically sustainable.

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Chinese Version Below

为什么该把共享搭车当公交车和餐馆管制

在我上一篇文章中分享了些想法,关于为什么在全球COVID-19疫情结束后,各地的共享拼车服务将恢复和繁荣,并会取代公共交通。病毒何时能被控制还不清楚,我们也应该做好最坏的准备。但当未来成为现实时,共享搭车这种交通服务将变得必不可少,几乎类似于水电和宽带网。

这就引出了一个新问题:共享搭车应该如何监管?

我觉得:该像公交车和餐馆一样监管。

为什么是公交车和餐馆?

共享乘车将在现实意义上成为一种公共设施;在某些覆盖率很高的城市已经达到这种现象了。有许多受监管的公共资源可供参考,但它们都不具备共享乘车的特征,因此我们不应该盲目地将相同的监管框架复制到共享乘车服务上。

出租车是一个最明显的例子。在美国的出租车公司和共享乘车平台在地方政府面前的争斗是众所周知的。地方政府通常监管出租车行业。出租车管理规定最失败的一点就是它通过所谓的奖章制度人为地降低供给。这中制度促使腐败行为和政治庇护。一家公司在一个城市可以运营的出租车数量取决于你在政府游里面有多少熟人可以说服,而不是取决于消费者对服务的需求。而共享乘车平台上可以有很多司机给乘客提供方便,因此相对普通出租车比,乘客一般也喜欢用共享乘车服务。共享乘车是以一个自由市场的机制来安排供给,而不是以监管为幌子的基于政治关系的人为限制,这个要素应该保持不变。

其他一些监管按批包括纯公共设施,如电水供应商,以及私有公司提供的公共设施,如有线电视、宽带网和电信服务。在美国,这些企业往往是“区域垄断”型,即在一个地理范围内只有一个供应商,消费者没有任何选择。这种垄断背后的原油还是可以接受的:建造和维护这些基础设施需要大量投资,因此仅为了竞争而重建这些基础设施没有太大的经济意义。然而,同样的理由也不适用于共享乘车服务,因为它们首先是一门轻资产生意,不需要构建和维护任何基础设施。

我的观点是,共享乘车应该作为想公交车一样的公共交通和餐馆的混合来管理。因为搭车已经是公共交通的一种形式,而且在未来会变得更加如此,我在以前的文章里也详细讨论过了。因此它们应该遵守现有的公共交通安全标准,无论是车辆还是司机。相关的州政府委员会和执法部门必须制定一些新的标准和程序来具体操作(汽车和司机肯定比公交车和公交车司机多很多),但条例本身不需要有太大的变化。

共享搭车的汽车的清洁和健康标准也可以像对待餐馆一样管制,因为消费者会有类似的担忧。人们会在很长一段时间内对在外边接触、触碰和吃的东西的清洁度保持谨慎。餐馆的整体清洁度本身也需要提高,在推进监管饮食安全的同时扩大到共享乘车车辆的范围里足以。

将共享乘车作为公交车和餐馆的混合体去规范,有助于确保服务的质量和基本信任。至于共享单车的其他方面,不需要多加监管,而是让自由市场经济的方式来自我调整。

(我举的这些大多是基于美国的例子,但我认为基本原则可以应用于其他国家,按环境适应当地的监管框架。)

当然,总还是有另一种选择,那就是完全不监管。我不认为这是正确的方向,不仅是出于保护消费者安全健康的考虑,也是因为明智有理的监管实际可以帮助这些共享乘车公司提高信誉和盈利能力,从而提高长期生存的能力。

用监管来提高可信度

每个共享乘车平台在达到一定规模时,都会遇到安全问题和公关方面的挫折。Uber和Lyft都有一长串严重的安全问题,从性侵犯到撞车甚至谋杀。滴滴出行也有类似的严重违规行为。Grab也是一样

共享乘车服务在公众中都存在信誉问题。而解决方式并不是在每一个环节都与监管人士抗争,而是对明智的监管带有接受和合作的态度,从而提高自己的信誉和服务质量。而且监管本身并不会自动妨碍盈利的潜力。在美国,没有人会在未经联邦存款保险局(Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation,FDIC)批准的银行开户。银行不还是照样赚钱。

一个有相关监管机构认可的共享乘车平台,既能够确保安全、对司机背景做过调查以及保证汽车的清洁,也会吸引更多的乘客。

这是一个综合分配的问题,不是非此即彼。

信誉好就盈利

当然,我们也不能忽视一个现实:这些共享乘车平台都是需要盈利的私有公司,而且每一个公司都是用着风险投资搭建起来的。所以他们面临的压力,不仅仅是赚点钱就好,而是风投期待的飞速增长、巨额利润。

有意思的是,用适当的监管来提高这些共享乘车服务的信誉其实可以提高它们的盈利能力,尤其在疫情过去以后。虽然会有新的合规成本,但正如我在前一篇文章中所说,由于大量失业,招聘司机的成本会大幅度下降,所以在价钱方面可以与公共交通有一争,同时还比公交更健康、更清洁——我敢打赌,许多人更愿意每次趟车多付一两美元用共享乘车服务。

所有这些是否都会带来足够多的利润,以满足风投或最乐观的华尔街分析师的预期?可能不会,但这是一个设定期望值的问题,而不是商业模式的问题。

坦诚地说,共享乘车的业务本来就不是个纯科技业务。Social Capital 创始人兼首席执行官,Chamath Palihaptiya,的形容最准确,它们是“有科技成分的混合实体业”。这种商业模式本身没什么问题,是门好生意,但对它的估值和期望不能和向对谷歌(Google)或Facebook这种纯科技公司一样。这种差异早就应该反映在这些共享业务的运营、资本投入、外界直观和业内估值上了。

冠状病毒的影响会导致每个行业都会重新思考和重组自己的运作和未来;共享搭车亦不例外。把它们当作公交车和餐馆去处理和管理,将会帮助它们成长,变成一项必不可少,有信誉,又可以长期成长下去的服务。

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