Uber is a third-party application that connects people looking for rides with drivers. Using GPS technology and smartphones, the innovative program allows its pre-screened drivers to find passengers who have requested a ride through its mobile service. Drivers must apply to become Uber drivers and receive pay from Uber based on each trip they conduct, and they use their own personal vehicles to transport passengers. Unlike taxi drivers or limousine services, Uber drivers do not pay a licensing fee to the city in order to operate, and they are not regulated in the same manner as these commercial drivers. Therein lies the rub.
Although Uber is operating efficiently in over 40 cities across the United States, the City of Charleston has announced that it will prosecute drivers who attempt to transport passengers under the Uber system. Going a step further, the Charleston Police Department has announced it will conduct sting operations in an effort to catch Uber drivers, who will then face a potential fine in excess of $1,000 and 30 days in jail if ticketed. The proffered excuse for this special enforcement is to protect unsuspecting passengers from unregulated drivers who do not carry the levels of insurance that taxi drivers are required to carry and who also have not been screened in the same manner that these professional drivers have been.
While some might be comforted by the extent to which the municipal authorities are going to protect the public, the extreme hard line they've taken against this fledgling service raises questions. Is it really the public that the city is seeking to protect?
Independent taxi drivers and taxi companies have been the most vocal opponents of Uber for reasons that should be obvious. For every dollar an Uber driver makes for delivering a satisfied customer to their destination, that is a dollar less a taxi company will be collecting. With more overhead and more fees to pay to operate than Uber drivers, taxi drivers are at a distinct disadvantage when competing with the new service, particularly if their service is found to be less efficient.
And the taxi companies are not the only ones who stand to lose money if Uber is successful in Charleston. The City of Charleston, which requires taxi operators to pay business license fees in order to operate, cannot collect the same fees from Uber drivers who are actually regular citizens using their private vehicles to transport passengers. As the business for taxi companies and even pedicabs drops, this revenue source for the city also would potentially decline, a fact that surely has not been lost on those pushing for strict enforcement.
Uber operates in Boston, Chicago, Denver, Atlanta, Miami, Baltimore, and Washington D.C. (to name a few large cities where it has met with success), as well as smaller cities such as Providence, Wilmington, and Myrtle Beach. To the extent that non-professional drivers who transport passengers present a unique problem or threat of harm, surely the dangers would have been realized in these other municipalities by now. Lay drivers who earn income from Uber have the same incentives to be safe and careful with their passengers as professional drivers do. If they are not careful, they can be sued personally since Uber does not assume any liability for their negligent acts.
Uber has promised to pay the fines for ticketed drivers, so the fate of the service may ultimately be decided in the courts if there is not some agreement allowing its operation in the meanwhile. In a city without the public transportation options found in other areas, it is a shame that this proposed service would register so highly on law enforcement's radar. Here's to hoping a resolution emerges that will allow Charleston to join other cities benefiting from this innovation.