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VOL. 129 | NO. 152 | Wednesday, August 06, 2014

City Reviews Ridesharing Policies

By Amos Maki

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The city of Memphis is reviewing policies and procedures related to vehicles for hire after a firestorm related to ridesharing services such as Lyft and Uber erupted earlier this summer.

The city of Memphis is reviewing polices and procedures in the wake of the rise of ride-sharing services like Lyft and Uber.

(Lyft)

City permits administrator Aubrey Howard said the city had not yet initiated patrols to catch Lyft and Uber drivers in the act, but has instead launched a review of the city’s policies.

“We have not but have begun another review of our ordinances versus federal laws that may apply to make certain we are going down the right road,” Howard said.

Howard said Memphis does not want to stop commerce but is exploring how other cities have dealt with the transportation upstarts, which seemingly sprung up overnight.

In July, the city sent Uber and Lyft, which both began operating in Memphis earlier this year, cease-and-desist letters, saying the app-based services were skirting city laws that require inspections, background checks on drivers and fees, which Uber and Lyft do not pay.

Lyft and Uber, both based in San Francisco, are ridesharing services people access with their smartphones. When someone wants a ride from one of the companies, they pull up a mobile app and request one. They’ll be matched with a driver from the area, and once the ride is over, the app charges payment from the user’s credit card, so no cash is involved. The payments to drivers are described as “donations” rather than fares. Drivers act as independent contractors and share revenues with the companies.

They compete with taxi services and other ride-for-hire businesses, touting their supposed lower rates and friendly policies such as allowing passengers to ride in the front seat.

Cab companies across the world have taken note. Earlier this year, taxi operators in London and Washington staged massive protests against services like Lyft and Uber.

Agencies across the country have been wrestling with ways to regulate ridesharing services.

Howard has said there’s little difference between Lyft and Uber and other ride-for-hire businesses regulated by the city, such as taxis or limousines.

Drivers with those businesses undergo criminal background checks and motor vehicle record checks, and the companies are required to carry commercial automobile liability insurance. With taxis, the city can even require random drug screens of drivers. Those businesses or their employees also pay fees to the city for their permits, which services like Lyft and Uber do not do.

Local cab companies have complained loudly that Uber and Lyft are not subject to the same background and safety checks they undergo and don’t have to pay the fees the cab operators must come up with.

Howard said it was important for the city to know who the drivers are.

“We need to know whom the individuals are that are transporting patrons upon the streets of the city of Memphis for a fee and to know that they do so in a manner that is not a public safety issue,” she said.

Lyft and Uber say that background and driver records checks are performed on drivers and that the companies have liability insurance in place covering driver liability.

Memphis is far from alone in terms of determining how to handle companies like Uber and Lyft. The companies emerged and spread relatively quickly, leaving governments, transportation commissions, airports and regulators across the nation scrambling to play catch-up.

The city of Charlotte, N.C., is proposing to regulate app-based ride-sharing services by requiring their drivers and cars to pass city background checks.

Like Charlotte, Howard said the city of Memphis wants to make sure passengers are safe.

“Our approach has always been public safety not stopping enterprise,” she said. “We know that this is a national if not international issue and we are seeing how it is being handled elsewhere.”

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