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Madland: Understanding Uber and Lyft's lame launch in Madison


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The introduction of the Lyft and Uber "ride services" to Madison was certain to be contentious.

However, their 'launch first and get legal approval later' strategy made the debate more acrimonious than it needed to be. There was almost no build up to their introduction to the market, outside a Craigslist ad seeking drivers.

As Lyft and Uber have done in other cities, they started service despite being in violation of Madison's local regulations. If the companies had bothered to do things the smart way, they could have built a roster of alders willing to support changing city ordinances to allow their drivers to operate lawfully. Alders Scott Resnick and Maurice Cheeks are predisposed to support tech start-ups, and they would have brought others on board. (Cheeks even used Uber for a ride home from the airport a few days after the service launched in town.)

But now, Madison police are preparing to ticket Lyft and Uber drivers. I think these operations have a lot of potential but, right now, they are competing unfairly against cab companies. Just because you are a start-up doesn't mean you get to break the law. In America, we reserve law breaking for the giant corporations.

When Hooters wanted to build a location by East Towne Mall a few years back, they sent six representatives to an ALRC meeting. If a company that found a way to screw up chicken wings can competently communicate with the city, your company can too.

Beyond the legal ramifications, this topic has spurred on some of the most toxic discussion I have ever seen on social media locally. Once again, the dialogue was going to be tense -- anything disruptive is going to be. Madison loves debate, but the sudden launch and lack of communication from Lyft and Uber forced people to fall back to extremes and emotions. In the context of one Facebook thread, Lyft/Uber supporters were racist mini-Scott Walkers while opponents were dinosaurs afraid of innovation who were likewise racist.

Compare this to a different group spreading the word about their disruptive idea. Occupy Madison has done a wonderful job communicating their plan to build a "tiny house" village in the Emerson East neighborhood. They've worked with the city to make sure they build these houses legally, they've held meetings with neighborhood residents, and they've been willing to answer questions from people who oppose the project. With the Occupy folks setting the tone, debate has been civil. Isthmus has published letters from residents for and against the proposal -- both sides are passionate without engaging in a screaming match.

If Occupy Madison had decided to do things the Lyft/Uber way, Brenda Konkel would have just built a dozen tiny houses overnight and then told the city it was time to start discussing the project.

I like the idea of these ride services, and I think there is a place for Lyft and Uber alongside our existing taxi system. But they've gotten off to a really bad start in Madison, and will need more than a fluffy pink mustache to make things better.

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