EBR Metro Council opens door for ride sharing companies

Updated at 5:55 p.m. — The Metro Council voted Wednesday to allow ride sharing companies like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar to operate in Baton Rouge.

Council members Chauna Banks-Daniel and Scott Wilson cast the only votes against the measure. Chandler Loupe and Joel BoƩ were absent from the vote.

Taxi cab representatives asked the council to reject the vote on the basis that the technology companies would be subject to looser regulations and allowed to charge whatever they want.

Uber representatives appeared before the council saying they have a reputation for providing service to underserved areas and reducing DUIs.

B aton Rouge taxi and limo drivers had said prior to Wednesday’s meeting that an attempt by the Metro Council to allow ridesharing companies into the market would create public safety concerns and an uneven playing field for transportation services.

The new local ordinances approved by the council Wednesday are designed to attract tech transportation companies like Uber, Lyft and Sidecar to Baton Rouge. These services allow passengers to use smartphone apps to hail rides from amateur drivers, often using their personal vehicles. Riders use their phones to pay with credit cards, with the company and the driver each taking a cut.

Council members sponsoring the ordinances say there are too few taxis in Baton Rouge and the existing ones are too slow to respond. They argue the dearth of available taxis in the city has created a void that can be filled by the ridesharing companies.

But traditional transportation providers in interviews prior to Wednesday’s council meeting decried the fact that the new companies won’t be saddled with the same regulations they deal with, while also failing to provide the same level of protection offered by the government oversight.

“The riding public deserves to know when they get in a car, that the person behind the wheel is qualified to be there, that they’re certified by the police and the city,” said Keith Wyckoff, manager of Yellow Cab Baton Rouge, the largest taxicab provider in the parish. “People nationwide are realizing that this is not who you want your children or your grandparents riding with. It’s public safety at its worst.”

In order to operate a taxi in Baton Rouge, drivers must have a state chauffeur license and get their vehicles and meters inspected twice a year. Taxi drivers go to the city police annually to be fingerprinted and photographed. Police also verify they don’t have criminal records.

Cab fares are set by the Metro Council and the taxi board commission.

The proposed ordinance would require criminal background and driving-record checks for the ridesharing companies, but the onus is on the companies rather than the city police to do them.

Companies like Uber would be free to charge whatever rate they wish.

“It’s not a level playing field,” said Wade Randolph, who owns Riverside Limousines. “Some agency needs to be accountable to who is in that car and what kind of condition that car is in.”

Councilman John Delgado, who sponsored the ordinance changes with Ryan Heck, said in an interview before Wednesday’s council meeting that he’s not surprised that cabs and limos are concerned about losing what he derided as their “government-authorized monopoly.”

“My concern is about fairness to the consumers,” he said. “This is a fight by taxicab companies to maintain the status quo, which is waiting 45 minutes to an hour at midnight for a cab at the airport or downtown.”

Delgado said the technology used by the companies creates accountability, because riders get to see drivers’ profiles on their smartphones and can rate the driver and the vehicle.

Ridesharing services operating in Baton Rouge, under the ordinance, will be required to do background checks on potential drivers, inspect vehicles, establish zero-tolerance policies for drug and alcohol use, and prohibit riders from “street hails.”

Baton Rouge isn’t the only Louisiana city considering opening the door to these companies. The possibility of New Orleans loosening existing limo and taxi regulations took center stage during a City Council committee debate on Tuesday, as council members there took up a proposal by Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration that would allow ridesharing companies to offer at least some services. The topic provoked hours of debate and the panel decided not to vote, but instead to revisit the issue next month.

Wyckoff noted that many of the ridesharing companies allow drivers to use their existing auto insurance policies, rather than requiring commercial insurance. That potentially could create coverage gaps for the riders and drivers depending on the insurance plan, he argued.

In March, Uber announced it would expand insurance coverage for some of its drivers in the event they’re involved in an accident, which kicks in only if the driver’s personal insurance fails to cover an incident. The announcement came a couple months after an Uber driver killed a 6-year-old crossing a street in San Francisco. Uber is continuing to fight a lawsuit filed by the girl’s family in court, saying the company is not at fault because the independently contracted driver was not actively carrying or responding to a request for a fare at the time of the crash.

Uber, one of the first and best-known ridesharing services, is already advertising for drivers in the Baton Rouge area. It operates in 128 cities across the world.

Wyckoff said Yellow Cab is investing in its fleet and service to meet the growing demand for taxi services. He said his company now offers most every convenience offered by the ridesharing companies — such as phone apps and the ability to accept credit cards. Yellow Cab has about 105 cabs, and there are about 150 taxis operating in the parish.

Cab companies also are preparing to increase their presence downtown, Wyckoff said, as they work with city officials to create more waiting areas.

“The problem, as anyone will tell you, is there’s no parking in downtown Baton Rouge, and you can’t park on Third Street,” he said. Third Street has the highest concentration of bars and restaurants downtown.

Nationwide, as popularity of the ridesharing companies continues to grow, so does the opposition and the legal challenges.

As recently as this month, the state of Virginia levied more than $35,000 in civil penalties on Uber and Lyft for operating without proper permits, and the Pennsylvania Public Utility commission issued a cease-and-desist order against Uber, according to news reports.

In San Francisco, cab drivers filed a class-action lawsuit against Uber, citing unfair practices that are cutting into their businesses.

“If they’re such a good company, why do they have notable lawsuits in every city they’re in?” Wyckoff said. “Why would anyone want to bring in a company with that much baggage?”

Delgado chalked up the litigation to a powerful incumbent industry protecting its turf.

“The taxicab industry has done a very good job of fighting innovation and change,” he said.

Follow Rebekah Allen on Twitter, @rebekahallen. For more coverage of city-parish government, follow the City Hall Buzz blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/ cityhallbuzz.