Charlotte poised to tweak taxi rules to level playing field with Uber, Lyft

Drivers wait in the taxi lot at Charlotte Douglas International Airport Friday, March 28, 2014.
Drivers wait in the taxi lot at Charlotte Douglas International Airport Friday, March 28, 2014.

The last few years have been tough for many taxi drivers and companies, as ride-hailing apps such as Uber and Lyft eat into their market share with the ease of summoning a ride from one’s smartphone.

Now, Charlotte City Council is poised to change regulations for cab drivers, which staff said would make it simpler for taxi companies to follow the rules and help them with a more level playing field. But the rules will still leave taxis more stringently regulated than Uber and Lyft.

“The industry is undergoing a lot of changes,” said council member Julie Eiselt. “We’ve had a lot of discussions and stakeholder meetings.”

The goal is to move the city away from strict regulation for taxis into more of a “support and audit” role, city staff said. Council member Kenny Smith said the system was “inching towards a free market.”

Charlotte dropped plans to regulate Uber and other ride-hailing apps locally after the state passed a bill setting standards for the companies in 2015 that pre-empt local regulations. The statewide regulations for ride-hailing companies require drivers for ride-hailing apps to carry insurance during and between rides. The companies must pay a $5,000 annual state permit fee and must conduct local and national criminal background checks on the drivers, who use their personal cars to give people rides.

Uber had opposed more local regulations in Charlotte, as it has in cities, states and countries that attempted to impose regulations requiring background checks more strict than those the company itself requires for new drivers.

Cab drivers and company owners in Charlotte have long complained that they are subject to more stringent regulations, including fingerprint checks and rules about how much they can charge, than those to which Uber, Lyft and other ride-hailing companies are subject. Uber and Lyft won’t be affected by the city’s regulations, because they fall under state law.

The proposed new Charlotte regulations for taxi drivers – officially known as the city’s passenger vehicle-for-hire ordinance – would require a fingerprint background check for drivers every three years, instead of just when the driver initially applies for a permit.

For-hire companies would also be responsible for administering training programs and triennial drug tests for drivers, which staff said would give the companies more flexibility to hire staff than requiring drivers to attend city-approved programs. The city’s passenger vehicle-for-hire manager would also gain the authority to request medical certification from a doctor to certify a driver’s fitness to operate a taxi.

The regulations would also allow taxis to have seatback “infotainment systems,” or video screens, similar to those you see if you take a cab in New York, and would allow more flexibility for digital advertising on cabs. That should help drivers generate more revenue, staff said.

Council members will vote on the proposed regulations Jan. 23.

“It’s been kind of eerie that we haven’t gotten a lot of response from the cab industry, and typically we would,” said council member Al Austin. “They’re happy with much of this.”

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo