Three of Philadelphia's taxi companies are merging, with PHL Taxi and Freedom Taxi joining ranks with 215-GET-A-CAB to become a single branded entity. The three taxi firms will share a single look, with each car being redesigned and repainted at the tune of $1000/car. There will also be a "revamped smartphone app, upgraded technology in cars and updated fleet interiors."
It's an inspired effort from an industry that has been less than innovative over its history. In addition to the changes mentioned, the taxis are:
Of course, the reason for these changes are due to the pressure being put on the industry by ridesharing services Uber and Lyft. The ultimate question though, is will any of this matter?
The short answer to that question, in this author's opinion, is yes, this merger does matter - but not in the way you're probably thinking. What does matter in this unification is the reduction in the transportation diversity that adds to Philadelphia's uniqueness as a place, and the strengthening of of a local brand.
What doesn't matter? All of those fancy changes without a new pricing strategy.
It is very unlikely that these changes will ultimately stave off the decline of cab companies unless both Uber and Lyft go broke (not impossible at the rate they're losing money). In my humble opinion, the taxi industry is too far behind technologically and their years of being a protected industry left them ill-prepared to deal with unexpected competition.
Not long ago, taxis and taxi drivers served a real purpose. They provided point-to-point transportation services, drivers were typically far more knowledgeable about their area than the average local, and the cars themselves provided a bit of local flair that could help identify a place. While no city did this better than NY with its iconic yellow taxis or London with its black cabs, other cities like Philadelphia did offer some uniqueness in its cab fleet.
Today though, anyone with a Toyota Corolla and a smartphone has just as much road knowledge as the most seasoned cabbie, with a likely newer car, and in better condition than the average cab. With the barriers to entry virtually eliminated, cities far and wide now have replaced Crown Victorias with Camrys as the defacto cab fleet; and while Uber and Lyft do have some branding, the driver's car is ultimately unchanged while it functions in its role. Your Uber driver's Honda Civic doesn't look any more like a taxi than my car does.
Its well known that the taxi industry has been hammered since Uber and later Lyft came onto the scene, with the value of a medallion in Philadelphia losing over $500,000 worth of value since 2014. Combined with car-sharing services like ZipCar, taxi companies have had to grapple with the very real threat of extinction. Their apparent response to modernize is a great step in the right direction - but as an industry, they're taking a small step when they need to make a giant leap forward.
Transportation is essentially a commodity, as air travel has shown in recent years. People may say that they care about service - and everyone does care about service to some degree. But at the end of the day, the thing that people really care about when it comes to transportation, is cost. This is why Spirit and Frontier and Jet Blue (and even United) keep getting fare after fare, despite dismal customer service ratings, because they win on price...and route monopolies but that's a discussion for another day.
When one is going from point A to point B, and the difference in service is essentially negligible, the average consumer will choose the cheapest option almost every time. When one can get an entire ride on Lyftline for $2.50 and the flag-fall (price to start the journey) for the cab is $2.70, which option would you rather take?
This is the terrifying proposition for the taxi companies that they seem to be willfully ignoring. Philadelphia Freedom owner Everett Abitol was even quoted saying "[O}ne thing I can’t ever adhere to is sending someone to the airport for $13, $14 because it doesn’t cost that to do that job. The driver’s time can’t be duplicated, the cost of fuel." The combined fleet is considering flat rates between zones in an effort to be more price competitive, which could be somewhat valuable; but the cab companies are mistaken if they think their issues will be mostly resolved with improvements in passenger amenities and a marketing push. Initially, when Uber Black was the only option - this may have been a viable strategy. It's far too late for that now.
With public transport increasingly feeling the pinch from rideshare options, city transport options are becoming increasingly privatized through Uber and Lyft - and the jury is out on whether this is a good thing. Cities need viable cab companies, not only because increased competition drives down prices and improves service, but because the uniform appearance of cabs provide a local character that the national rideshare firms don't seem interested in matching.
The challenge now will be if the taxis can find a magic combination of pricing and amenity to stay competitive. If they fail, it will be a loss that we will all be poorer for. After all, is there anything really special about a Honda Accord?
It's Thanksgiving this week, which means there won't be a usual blog post this week. Instead, I would like to wish everyone a fat and happy turkey day! I hope that no matter how you celebrate the holiday, that it finds you feeling rested and full of life.
On that note, please enjoy the following thoughts from my favorite comic strip of all time, Calvin and Hobbes:
For those unaware, medical marijuana is now legal in Pennsylvania and the response to the newly created patient registry has been fairly robust, with nearly 4000 patients signing up for the program. However, not all the news about the program has been positive thus far. Just a quick overview about how it all works - in order for a patient to qualify for marijuana, they must get approved by a state-licensed doctor and meet one or more of the following 17 criteria. Once prescribed, the patient must get their prescription filled by a state licensed dispensary, which are slated to open within the next 6 months.
What interests me in particular though, isn't whether people should or shouldn't be allowed access to marijuana, but rather, where are these dispensaries going to be located; and, what will municipalities do in response?
The current regulatory mindset in Philadelphia appears to be somewhat tolerant of these dispensaries, which for commercial landlords is great news, what with the increasing difficulty in finding tenants to lease up storefront retail. Under Philadelphia's zoning code, Medical Marijuana Dispensary is considered a "Retail Sales Use", under the category "Consumer Goods" - which makes sense. Delving further into the regulations, no medical marijuana dispensary use may be located:
In PA, the current list of approved locations of dispensaries is located here. At the moment, in Philadelphia there are four approved locations:
I will give the benefit of the doubt at the moment and believe that it's just a coincidence that these neighborhoods are going to be under-served for the time being. However, with a variance granted for the 12th and Walnut location, (there are not one but two daycares within the 500 ft exclusion zone), if we don't start to see dispensaries opening along Baltimore Ave, Cecil B. Moore, Passyunk or other similar locations, it's going to become increasingly difficult to believe that the lack of diverse locations is coincidental.
The city is treating medical marijuana dispensaries in a similar way as other "regulated" uses - and it's understandable why. There's a real, valid risk of dispensaries acting as fronts for recreational use that is still not legal in PA. In my opinion though, that risk is extremely small here. The list of qualifying conditions in PA include things like cancer, Parkinson's, and Multiple Sclerosis - things pretty hard to fake. A doctor may write a bogus script on occasion, but these incidents are likely going to be the exception, not the rule. While two doctors have already been expelled from the program, they represent just 2 out of over 100 doctors already approved - a 2% failure rate and dropping with each legitimate approval. Patients faking symptoms are probably the greater risk than fraudulent doctors or dispensaries, but as mentioned, these symptoms overall are pretty hard to fake.
However, because there will likely always be the occasional sham site, cities will treat dispensaries as literal "drug" stores. To me this is somewhat hypocritical, because the typical pharmacy has significantly MORE amphetamines and depressants in their inventory than any medical marijuana dispensary would ever have. The risks of drugs like Oxycontin, Adderall, and Morphine making their way into the general population have been shown to happen again and again and again - yet no one to my knowledge is recommending we put a 500 ft exclusion zone around a Walgreens. Indeed, many economic development practitioners and neighborhood residents would be thrilled to have a CVS open up if it meant access to lower cost goods and services, not to mention its likelihood to be a catalyst for additional investment.
And yet, there's still a social stigma associated with marijuana use among some. I certainly can appreciate that the "optics" don't look great if a dispensary is located next to a strip club. The optics probably look even worse if there's a dispensary next to a day care. For commercial corridor managers and economic development practitioners, particularly in lower income communities, a dispensary could be both a welcome sign of investment, or a detriment to the community's reputation. For other local retail operators, it will remain to be seen whether they view these dispensaries as supportive of their branding, or anathema to it.
While Philadelphia has somewhat opened its doors, it's likely that other less tolerant cities will work to try and develop regulations that further restrict where and how these facilities can locate. It's quite possible in the future to see municipalities use their zoning powers to limit dispensaries to fringe locations on the outskirts of population centers.
In my opinion, if this happens, it would be most unfortunate, Not just because it would likely further stigmatize people who need marijuana to cope with their pain, but because that would deprive commercial areas of needed retail diversity and consumer expenditure at a time where main street revitalization efforts are fighting a battle against online retailing. In my opinion, so long as these facilities are legal under PA state law, efforts should be made to incorporate them into main street retail hierarchy to help continue the resurgence of Pennsylvania's downtowns.
Please leave your thoughts/comments below!
Today, Florida State University became the 3rd university to suspend all Greek life on its main campus after the death of a fraternity pledge on Friday Nov. 3rd. The other two schools were Penn State, which suspended the system for the spring semester and LSU, which suspended their program for a month. For FSU, the suspension means the elimination of any and all social events, chapter meetings, and rush/new member events.
The sad, yet increasing death toll of young men and women involved in greek life on American college campuses is both tragic and preventable. As someone who was part of greek life while I was at Illinois, I have first hand experience as to what Greek Life on a large college campus is like - though my house was anything but the stereotypical "Frat House". The house was mostly filled with engineers and computer science majors, with the odd business major here and there. We had a unique policy where we wouldn't host parties at the house, but rather off-site at bars and barns (it was Illinois after all). This kept the house in reasonable condition, which is what the focus of this post will be on.
Greek life has been dissected as a social issue, so I wanted to explore the lesser appreciated aspect of it as a housing problem.
Fraternities and sororities on US campuses evolved in the late 19th century, with chapter houses starting to become more common around the 1890's. While back then houses may have housed a few dozen students, today chapter houses are upwards of 56,000 square feet, housing hundreds of students at a time. With large college campuses often having well over two dozen different chapter houses, Greek buildings account for millions of square feet of housing and are responsible for the living quarters for thousands of students. And what people often fail to realize is how affordable Greek housing is.
According to this article, the cost of living in a Greek house can cost between $3000 and $5300 per semester, depending on the school and chapter. If I remember correctly, spring semester included the summer months, since trying to get a sublet in a Greek house is impossible and the chapters want/need the money, plus they want you to spend time at the house. So, essentially, Greek life provides housing AND meals to students at a rate somewhere between $500-$900/mo. By comparison, the cost of the cheapest on-campus housing with a meal plan today at Penn State is about $900/mo - and summer's extra. People may think frats are filled with elitist rich kids, and that may be true at times - but it's often way more economical to live in a fraternity or sorority than to stay on campus!
In land use planning, Greek housing is often considered a "group home", which is loosely defined as a home where multiple unrelated persons reside. Usually, this use is grouped together with nursing homes, halfway houses, prisons, and college dormitories. Of course, Greek residences share little in common with other group housing types by their users (cheap jokes aside), but on a building design and co-habitation model, they're extremely alike. Group sleeping quarters, large shared common areas, organized activities - fraternity and sorority houses effectively function just like an aged-care facility (insert cheap joke here).
What makes the FSU suspension concerning to me, and should be concerning to other university administrators, is the future of Greek life as a housing solution to colleges. As mentioned before, on most large college campuses, these houses provide a tremendous residential service to the schools. Greek homes absorb students that would otherwise need to be housed on-campus, requiring the schools to building million dollar facilities - or often more controversial - being housed off-campus in residential neighborhoods. In urban areas such as Boston and Philadelphia (two places I've lived and gone to college in), the town/gown strife over encroaching student living is ever-present, with students driving up the cost of housing closer to campus. Going forward, universities across the country have some very difficult decisions to make.
Like PSU, FSU couldn't sit idly by and watch an element of its student life act irresponsibly and ultimately fatally. It had to do something. And, the calls for banning Greek Life continue to get louder, much to the dismay of those involved in Greek organizations - and I imagine those working in the Facilities/Real Estate departments of schools; because, if those houses are shut down - what becomes of them?
As an example, if PSU eliminated Greek life tomorrow, 39 frats, 20 sororities, and 12 multi-cultural or unaffiliated chapters would be gone. Thousands of students would become homeless if unable to live in the houses, and dozens of properties worth millions of dollars would suddenly become targets for redevelopment, since the homes are far more valuable as multi-unit buildings than they are as group homes. Absorbing the students would put college towns in untenable situations, and schools wouldn't be able to replace the lost units on-campus for years. Schools could acquire the houses and run them as student housing - it's kinda been done before - but again, this adds millions of dollars in administrative expenses onto a school's budget, not to mention the initial capital outlay required to buy the properties in the first place.
It's this conundrum that in my opinion is the reason why schools have been reluctant to end Greek life, and why efforts will be first made to reform Fraternity and Sorority culture on campus, before any real efforts will be made to disband Greek life. No university president is going to want to explain to his or her board why the school has an unexpected multi-million dollar line item in the budget for emergency student housing replacement, and no mayor/elected official is going to want to have to explain to constituents that they need to borrow money to pay for students to live off-campus.
Love it or hate it, in my opinion, Fraternities and Sororities aren't going anywhere anytime soon. Barring egregious behavior, schools will continue to have an uneasy relationship with these organizations. Some schools may seek a deliberate, long-term strategy (taking 10+ years) to end Greek life on their campus, but the majority of them will likely continue to permit their existence because it would be too difficult to recreate the housing service they provide.
Last week Gov. Tom Wolf signed new legislation that allows a massive expansion of where, when, and how gambling can occur in the state. PA now becomes the 4th state legalizing online gambling, joining fellow tri-staters NJ and DE, and gambling mecca Nevada. Casinos are also now permitted to offer "interactive gambling parlors" in airports (including Pittsburgh and Philadelphia International), qualifying truck stops can operate up to five video gaming terminals (VGMs or EGMs depending on your vernacular), and the 10 larger casinos can bid on satellite casino licenses allowing up to 750 slot machines and 30 table game so long as the facility isn't within 25 miles of another casino.
Very briefly, this bill was passed in part as a means to bridge the PA state budget shortfall while avoiding an increase in taxes. As a planner who often works in disadvantaged communities, the negative impacts on gambling in those communities that need the most resources often far outweigh the benefits of a few new jobs or economic investment. However, the main focus of this post won't be on the political or socio-economic concerns, but rather the more qualitative, emotional ones.
Philadelphia has nothing to worry about from this legislation in terms of allowing new casinos. The entire city is less than 25 miles long, and with SugarHouse and the new casino being built down in South Philly, this law wouldn't apply locally. However, of more local concern is the new laws opening up airport and truck stop gambling.
For truck stops to qualify, the truck stop must be equipped with diesel islands; have sold an average of 50,000 gallons of diesel each month for the last year; have at least 20 parking spaces for trucks; have a convenience store; and be on an at least 3-acre parcel of land not owned by the Pennsylvania Turnpike. The truck stop must also be licensed as a lottery sales agent. The airport expansion is a bit trickier - the only requirement appears to be that it has to get approved by the Airport and only be available to ticketed passengers, with no stipulations on size or numbers of games (I could have misread though, please correct me someone if I am wrong!)
This expansion of gambling is sad because once the revenue hits, government isn't going to give it up quite quickly, and that's a shame, because I've seen first hand what it's like with expanded retail gambling operations. In Australia, there are what's called "Pokies" Bars, which are bars that have a few OTB stations and/or EGMs. There aren't many, at most 3-4 stations - but the atmosphere they create can be depressing in the area of the bar they are situated in. These sections are, regardless of location (affluent or not) mostly filled with older men, gambling away their pension money while sipping beers remembering days long gone. The rest of the bar can often be a pleasant place to be - but there's always a sort of dead zone around the pokies, and depending on the layout - that can extend quite far onto the floor.
Now, not many people wax poetic about truck stops any more, fewer are fond of airports, but part of the enjoyment of going to a new place is seeing what local retail options are available. Airports are many people's first impressions of a city and it's culture, truck stops often serve as that for those passing through. In Vegas, slots at the airport makes sense - it's economy is based around gambling. Philadelphia/Pittsburgh? For better or worse, the Philly brand is Ben Franklin, Independence Hall, Rocky and Cheesesteaks. Pittsburgh is steel, grit, and Andy Warhol - so far as I understand it. Where does gambling fit in with those narratives?
Anyone who's flown into McCarran airport will tell you that it's cool to see slot machines in the terminal - at first. But then, there's a sadness that certainly I get watching people pour money into a machine before they leave. For me, if the first thing I see when I get off an airplane is slot machines, my first feeling is going to be one of sadness, not excitement. To me, it's a sign of a place desperate for revenue. That's not a great way to welcome visitors, no matter how nice looking those parlors may be. Lets not begin to compound the emotional risks of having delayed travelers losing money gambling and then potentially having more bad news. Airports aren't traditionally the home to calm, patient, rational behavior to begin with. And no offense to truck drivers, but adding a compulsive, depression inducing element into their work day just isn't a great idea to me.
I think we as a society lose something when what's unique about a place is replaced by something generic. Sure, there'll always be a soft pretzel store in the airport, but there's only so much space available in an airport - and if EGMs turn out to be more profitable per sqft than a kiosk, you can bet that there will be people trying to expand the footprint of those parlors. Retail will never go away, people need places to eat, sit, shop - but the quality and variety of those locations will probably decline.
Leave your thoughts/comments below!
General thoughts and musings about the work SSC Solutions does and other things happening in and around Philadelphia