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Cab drivers say proposed rules favor Uber and Lyft

LyftsvsTaxis_2
JEFF WILLHELM - jwillhelm@charlotteobserver.com
Alli Mitchell drives for Lyft, a new ride sharing program that is giving traditional taxis a fit. JEFF WILLHELM - jwillhelm@charlotteobserver.com

Charlotte cab drivers told a city board Tuesday that they fear a proposed ordinance could put them out of business by giving an advantage to ride-sharing companies, while city officials defended the rules as fair.

About 70 cab drivers and owners packed a west Charlotte conference room for a sometimes-contentious hearing of the city’s Passenger Vehicle for Hire Board. Officials told the cabbies the new ordinance would subject drivers for ride-sharing companies such as Uber and Lyft to the same city background checks and vehicle inspections as cabs.

It would also deregulate cab fares, letting cab companies change their rates at will to compete more effectively with the new ride-sharing services, which use smartphone-based apps to dispatch amateur drivers to passengers.

Jonathan Fine, board chairman, said the new ordinance is an “attempt to level things” between the cabs and the ride-sharing companies.

While more than a dozen cab representatives voiced their unhappiness with the proposed rule, no one spoke on behalf of Uber and Lyft, though Lyft confirmed they had a representative at the meeting. Uber didn’t attend.

But both San Francisco-based firms have said they also oppose the draft regulations, though for the opposite reason: They say the rules are too strict. They fear that subjecting their amateur drivers to the city’s stricter licensing requirements and background checks would discourage many of them from driving at all.

What’s clear is that cab companies in Charlotte view Uber and Lyft as potentially existential threats.

“I go to the airport, there’s Uber. I go downtown, there’s Uber,” said Rashid Avid, a driver for Yellow Cab. “You cannot protect me from Uber.”

Frank Hinson is the former owner of Checker Cab, which shut down about two years ago. He said the new regulations, which formally recognize ride-sharing for the first time, will remove any incentive to operate a cab or a city-regulated cab company.

“You’ve written in things that are going to legitimize any form of transportation so long as it’s dispatched by an app,” he told the board.

The cab drivers’ frustrations boiled over: At one point, a cab driver told the board members they were all corrupt, and the room broke out in applause.

The board will take Tuesday’s feedback and make recommendations, officials said. Charlotte City Council’s public safety committee is set to vote on the draft ordinance in September, with a vote from the full City Council after that.

The city is working on a new ordinance to regulate taxis and other vehicles for hire, such as limousines, in the midst of a nationwide struggle over how to regulate Uber, Lyft and similar services.

Some jurisdictions have embraced them, such as Colorado, which recently formalized a system of lighter regulation for Uber and Lyft than taxis. Other states, such as Virginia, have sought to ban the services. Most jurisdictions are still trying to decide how to regulate the new firms, which the cab industry is fiercely opposed to.

Since Uber and Lyft started operating in Charlotte last year, drivers complain they’ve been hit hard with lost business. Meanwhile, owners on Tuesday complained about drivers defecting to go work for the new services, which offer them a quicker and cheaper way to make money.

“You go to hell and back to get the permits” to operate as a city-licensed cab, said Mohamed Mustafa, owner of Universal Cab. “We have to get protection. We have to go by the same rules.”

Although the proposed regulations would subject drivers and vehicles to Charlotte city checks, they wouldn’t require the companies themselves to get the same licenses that locally based cab companies need. The N.C. General Assembly passed a bill last year that bars municipalities from regulating such “digital dispatch” companies that don’t have a local presence, such as owning vehicles.

Under the new regulations, the current fare structure cab companies use would be thrown out. Cab companies would be free to set their own rates as they see fit, which could allow them to better compete with Uber and Lyft, who often undercut their city-mandated fares.

Instead, the maximum fare would be capped at $5 per mile or $5 per minute.

Portillo: 704-358-5041; Twitter: @ESPortillo
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