By Matthew Jackonen, Daily Staff Reporter
Published August 18, 2014
Supporters of driving-service companies Uber and Lyft will live to fight another day after the Ann Arbor City Council discussed the economic and safety concerned of these non-conventional taxi services.
At a meeting where only Margie Teall (D–Ward 4) was absent, the City Council discussed the first readings of two taxicab ordinances designed to regulate companies such as Uber and Lyft, companies that do not employ full-time professional drivers but instead use drivers-for-hire.
The first ordinance in question – which unanimously passed its first reading – is designed to regulate the rates charged by vehicle-for-hire companies, and it ensures that rates are no higher than a maximum rate to be established by the Council. The second ordinance, which did not pass Monday night, would have required drivers for vehicle-for-hire companies like Uber and Lyft to meet certain standards that are outlined in the ordinance.
Drivers would have to register with the city, and in doing so, they would have to provide proof of insurance, obtain a valid chauffer’s license, prove they have not obtained more than 6 points or have certain moving violations, have not been convicted of a felony of violence or criminal sexual conduct and have a certificate of authority given by the state in compliance with the state’s Limousine Transportation Act. These regulations would likely be cripple Uber and Lyft’s operations.
The proposed ordinance failed to pass when Mayor John Hieftje (D–Ann Arbor), Sabra Briere (D–Ward 1), Sally Hart Petersen (D–Ward 2), Jane Lumm (I–Ward 2) and Christopher Taylor (D–Ward 3) voted against the measure.
Stephen Kunselman (D–Ward 3), the ordinances’ most vocal supporter, called Uber and Lyft “cheaters” that skirt the law and are not “paying the true cost of business.”
“The reason these companies are making a profit is they are cheating the law,” Kunselman said. “They are not holding their drivers to the standards of the law, and yet they are operating and get 20 percent of the cut.”
He said his support of the ordinance stems from what he sees as a necessity to ensure the drivers are properly registered and are screened for the purposes of promoting public safety.
Taylor, winner of the Democratic mayoral primary, voiced his opposition to the ordinance by highlighting the many positives the companies provide.
“They provide safe services,” Taylor said. “They provide useful services to the public. They provide employment.”
Taylor also went on to say that effectively blocking Uber and Lyft from Ann Arbor would not be beneficial to Ann Arbor residents.
“The proposed changes we have here would remove these services from Ann Arborites, and thereby, I think actually do a harm to the quality of life of people in the city,” Taylor said.
Michael White, Uber’s general manager for Detroit, voiced his concerns with the ordinance during council’s debate, and he specifically noted the company’s ability to self-regulate with quality control measures that he said are unlike any other companies in the business.
“When we authorize someone to use our system and provide rides through our system, we do it with the utmost care,” White said. “If there’s a problem on a trip such as if there is a driver that somehow was drinking on the trip and (passengers) smell alcohol and report it to us, we get that immediate feedback.”
Uber allows passengers to rate their trip after the ride to gauge immediate reactions to the drivers and the quality of the ride, and White said if there are major problems – such as driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol or reckless driving – drivers will be disallowed to provide services through Uber’s application.
White added that Uber has liability insurance of up to $1 million for drivers and passengers during the length of an Uber ride, which he said makes the need for further insurance for drivers unnecessary. However, Kunselman used the quality control system as an argument against Uber.
Uber’s self-regulation includes drivers being able to rate passengers, and that drivers can blacklist passengers if they receive enough negative feedback. Kunselman said he heard cases where this service was abused, citing a story of a blind girl being denied a ride due to her possession of a seeing-eye dog. While White said the Uber application itself is accessible to the blind through a number of features, he didn’t address the larger gap in Uber’s regulation of drivers.
Taylor said he and Briere are bringing a temporary operational agreement to the table for a vote at the next council meeting in order to allow vehicle-for-hire services to legally operate within the city while the state decides their ultimate fate.
What the agreement will specifically contain is unclear, but like the city of Detroit’s agreement with Uber and Lyft ironed out this May, Ann Arbor’s agreement will likely enforce strict background checks for drivers and vehicle inspections.