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Uber and its enemies

Uber and its enemies

On the evening of December 31, 2013, Huan Kuang and her two young children were crossing the street in San Francisco’s Tenderloin District when a Honda SUV made a careening right turn and ran them over in the intersection. Ms. Kuang suffered multiple injuries, including a skull fracture, and two and a half months later she still has trouble walking. The skin on one side of five-year-old Anthony Liu’s face was scraped off, which will leave permanent scarring. Six-year-old Sofia Liu sustained severe trauma from the impact and died hours later in the hospital. Ms. Kuang and her husband, Ang Liu, are recent Chinese immigrants and unemployed restaurant workers with no means to pay their significant hospital bills.

Accidents of this sort are a terribly common occurrence. Cars kill on average 12 pedestrians every day in the U.S., and in 2013, Sofia Liu was one of 21 peoplefatally struck by vehicles in San Francisco. She was also the second person killed by a car in one of the city's crosswalks that very day.

The tragic death of Sofia Liu, and the maiming of her brother and mother, has drawn national media attention because at the time of the crash the driver of the vehicle, Syed Muzzafar, was working for Uber, a company that’s made ordering a car service so convenient that it’s upending the taxi business in cities around the world. On January 27, the Kuang-Liu family sued Uber in San Francisco Superior Court for damages related to the accident.

There’s no doubt that Uber should be held responsible for the deadly actions of its employee. (More on the lawsuit in a moment.) But members of San Francisco’s taxi cartel are trying to turn this tragedy into a broader indictment of the company and its business model. Outflanked by companies like Uber, they’re resorting to the timeworn tactic of seizing on an isolated incident to persuade the government to enact new rules that would cripple their competition.

Cabbies in other cities are resorting to similar tactics. On Thursday, a group of taxi drivers sued the city of Chicago in federal court for not clamping down on “Unlawful Transportation Providers.” You have to hand it to the group’s lawyer, Michael Shakman, for maintaining a straight face when telling the press that the lawsuit is really about “whether low-income areas and people with disabilities are going to be left without taxi service.”

First, some background on the taxi business. San Francisco, like many cities, grants exclusive permits to operate cabs that are called “medallions," which hold tremendous value. (In New York City, a taxi medallion fetches over $1 million.) This system has had the unintended consequence of turning cab operators into a mobilized interest group out to protect both their oligopoly and the resale value of these precious licenses. San Francisco's drivers fought for years to limit the supply of medallions, which is why it’s often impossible to hail a cab there.

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