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The roadblocks to UberX

(courtesy of Uber)

The longstanding fight for entrance into the St. Louis market by the app-based ride-share service Uber and its supporters came to a head this week with the company’s offer to provide St. Louisans with free rides for the Fourth of July weekend.

Uber had to cancel the offer, which was meant to reduce drunk driving over the holiday, after receiving notice from the St. Louis Metropolitan Taxicab Commission (MTC) that the free rides would be subject to the same conditions that have stalled the St. Louis rollout of UberX—the company’s standard-fare option, in which drivers use their personal vehicles—for months. The regulations include listing, fingerprinting, and background-checking drivers.

The Fourth of July conundrum is only one part of a protracted battle between Uber supporters and those who believe it should be subject to the same regulations as cab companies. The debate comes a year after the MTC sued Lyft, a similar ride-sharing program, from establishing a foothold in and around the city.

The MTC’s power to locally regulate companies like Lyft and Uber is a consequence of the Missouri legislature’s failure to pass statewide standards for ride-share companies. The lack of statewide regulation means that metropolitan organizations like the MTC, which of course traditionally regulated taxis, work under state statues to regulate transportation within the city and county.

The suit against Lyft and the pressure on Uber come from the same concerns that prompt the regulation of taxi drivers and cabs, said Neil Bruntrager, who represents the MTC: public safety.

“Those rules have been created because we were concerned about people on the roads,” Bruntrager said. “The basic fundamental issue is still public safety.”

Sagar Shah, Midwest general manager of Uber, contends that the regulations the MTC wants to impose are either alreadyfulfilled by Uber—like driver background checks—or unnecessary. “I think it’s really about smart regulations and modern regulations, at the end of the day,” he said. By not allowing ride-sharing companies to operate outside of general taxicab regulations, St. Louis may simply be behind the times.

Shah noted that similar state markets—Illinois, Kentucky, and Tennessee, for example—have enacted regulatory frameworks that account for new transportation technology without repercussions for public safety. The app itself, he argued, provides new measures of accountability unseen in traditional taxis for both driver and rider. St. Louis is now, Shah said elsewhere, the largest market in the country without these kinds of standard ride-share services—even as Uber drivers operate freely across the river in Metro East.

Alderman Scott Ogilvie of the 24th Ward agreed that the lack of ride-share options in St. Louis is a problem. “Very quickly, St. Louis has become an outlier in not having these services at nearly the same level that most other cities have,” Ogilvie said.

Bruntrager disagreed, remarking that how other states or cities regulate Uber doesn’t matter; the MTC has to follow state statues for regulating for-hire vehicles in every form. “We have a mandate to follow.”

Uber does operate in St. Louis in another form. The MTC has already loosened restrictions on Uber Black, a premium service with higher fares, in cooperation with Uber. But UberX, which is more like a traditional taxi, is where tensions have grown.

Jami Dolby, operations manager at Harris Cab, put it simply. “I think the focal point of this discussion…is simply an old kindergarten rule: Follow the rules,” she said. “For me,” she continued, “never before have I seen so many elected officials allow one company to say, let’s skirt the rules….And why would anyone want someone that’s in a lawmaking position to allow one company to come in, and to say, for you, because it’s trendy, you don’t have to follow the rules?”

Ogilvie, however, remarked that by putting the same restrictions on UberX as traditionally apply to taxis the MTC may not be acting within its own mandate. “For me, this is a question about what residents desire, and I think they desire more transportation choices,” Ogilvie said. “[The MTC’s] role is not to prevent companies from operating; it’s to regulate with an eye towards what is desirable for the region to have.”

Shah rejected the idea that UberX should be regulated like cabs at all. “Uber is not a taxi,” he said. “And a lot of other cities and states have figured that out and have regulated Uber differently. And I think it’s long overdue, but it’s time for St. Louis to do the same.”

The Metropolitian Taxicab Commission will vote on UberX and other transportation issues at the end of July. Until then, Shah said, Uber will continue to fight for a place in the St. Louis market.

St. Louis on the Air discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex Heuer and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter: @STLonAir.

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