Uber ordinance draws support and questions at City Council meeting

City Hall
The Iowa City Council considered a ride-sharing ordinance last night. — photo by Drew Bulman

At last night’s City Council meeting, community members hoping to bring ride-sharing to the area clashed with taxi company advocates during discussion of a Transportation Network Companies ordinance. Although the ordinance would have further implications, the conversation largely centered on Uber, the popular ride-sharing company that first tried to stake a claim in Iowa City in 2014.

The ordinance would place TNCs in a different category than taxi companies and hold them to separate standards, including on issues such as vehicle inspection, driver registration and background checks. Geoff Fruin, interim city manager, emphasized that the ordinance was considered separately from taxi regulation. His recommendation to council was to pass the TNC ordinance on first consideration and then provide direction to city staff to make any changes to the taxi regulatory framework prior to the second hearing.

The first consideration vote on introducing a new chapter to regulate such TNCs had been deferred at the Mar. 1 meeting, when council members requested more time for information gathering. This time the motion passed 7-0 after nearly an hour of community discussion.

Speaking in favor of Uber were UI students, representatives from local organizations, Uber drivers operating in nearby areas (in Iowa, Uber currently operates in Cedar Rapids, Des Moines, Ames and the Quad Cities). Arguing against the ordinances were cab drivers and cab company owners. They argued for greater parity between the TNC ordinance and regulation for taxi companies, which are currently subject to more stringent requirements under the city’s enforcement than ride-sharing companies like Uber would be.

Representing Uber was Clay Carrol, the company’s senior operations manager for the state of Iowa. In a brief statement, he said that in addition to providing “safe, low-cost rides to Iowa City residents,” Uber would “be able to create economic opportunities for hundreds if not thousands of drivers.” He gestured to a crowd of individuals wearing blue shirts, the Uber drivers in the area who’d come to show support. Carrol also said Uber could potentially reduce DUIs, parking congestion and traffic in Iowa City. “Numerous other cities across the U.S.” have adopted the same resolution, he said.

Rebecca Neades, of the Iowa City Chamber of Commerce, was a representative of one of several local groups that cited the prevalence of the service elsewhere and the expectation visitors to the area have for Uber. “It’s time that we either jump on board or get left behind.” Neades also mentioned the challenge for talent acquisition facing the area. “We are always trying to bring the best and brightest here and keep them here, and companies such as Uber or Lyft or others that might enter this market are an expectation. So if you really want people to look at this market seriously,” she said, “It’s not the one thing that will keep them away, but it’s one of the things that they’ll notice if they come to the market and don’t see this available.”

One of the economic benefits, Neades added, in addition to making a “more competitive environment” for transportation was the provision of jobs: “Companies such as this really do provide options for people entering the workforce that may not have … the ability or the skills necessary to enter other professions, so this really offers a low-entry barrier for those looking to find jobs.”

Joshua Schamberger, president of the Iowa City/Coralville Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, also said that when visitors came to Iowa city for conferences or sporting events, “Without question, the number one complaint/question we get is why does this community not have Uber … the sharing economy is here to stay.” Nate Kaeding, retail development director of the Iowa City Downtown District, conveyed the desire for Uber from the downtown community. In talking to local businesses, he said, “I’ve heard one unanimous complaint and one unanimous request.” The complaint, he said, was parking, and the request is for Uber. Kaeding called the TNC ordinance “a free market solution to a free market problem.”

UI’s student government representative reminded the council that he represented 22,000 undergraduates. “So far we’ve only heard overwhelming support for Uber,” he said. Another student said that she’d had no problem finding cabs on Saturdays, but when she has needed rides to work, she’s had to call around to multiple cab companies. Caleb Bell, also a student at UI, said the “financial restrictions” facing students made the cost of Uber more appealing than taxis.

Several current Uber drivers took to the podium, emphasizing often their enjoyment in interacting with passengers. Gary Todd, an Iowa City resident who has been driving for Uber for three months in Cedar Rapids, said, “I certainly hope you all listen closely to the benefits that Uber has to offer our community.” A Cedar Rapids driver who said he was a veteran and had been driving for Uber for 19 days said, “Uber has given me something to look forward to every day. I get to connect with my community.”

Dustin Mazgaj, a driver with Yellow Cab of Iowa City and a UI student, was the first of the taxi company employees to introduce issues that others would return to: the strict requirements currently facing taxi companies, including background checks by police, vehicle inspections and chauffeur licenses, all of which cost drivers and companies money and time, and to which which Uber drivers would not be comparably subject.

A driver for Marco’s Taxi added that each of those regulatory measures — the background checks, vehicle inspections and background and driving records — had to be completed separately for each driver in Iowa City, North Liberty and Coralville. Each car also had to be approved by Eastern Iowa Airport for pickup. In addition, the safety concerns often cited regarding Uber applied to drivers as much as passengers, he said: A dispatcher “helps judge passengers” and might remind a taxi driver when to take a break. “Strangers are getting in strangers’ cars,” he said. “Let’s not become another city that’s seduced by this and embroiled in lawsuits.”

Roger Bradley, manager of Yellow Cab of Iowa City, also spoke to the exemptions that would be granted TNCs but not taxi companies. He said there were currently eight taxi companies in Iowa City “that can comply with the rules as they are.” Bradley also asked the council to consider the potential problems of adopting the TNC ordinance before altering taxi regulations. “Something even as much as a six-month delay in that would certainly harm” local business, he said.

An owner of Yellow Cab added that he didn’t think the requirements to register vehicles and background check drivers was “too much to ask.” As for free market, he said, responding to Kaeding’s earlier remarks, “Take the regulations off us. I can put more cars on the street if I don’t have to paint every car,” or sticker and have each inspected. “I’m regulated by three cities and an airport,” he said. “You want free market, take that off me, we can provide more cars. All I ask for is a level playing field.”

Taxi driver Dennis Doderer, known as “Cab Dennis,” said Uber bragged about being disruptive, but “this kind of disruption is the kind of stuff the robber barons did.” He said he was “aghast” that the city council of “one of the most progressive cities in the country … would bring in a regressive company like Uber.”

A driver for Marco’s acknowledged the comments by “my counterparts at Uber [who] are enjoying playing cabbie. It is an enjoyable job.” But she was, unlike some of the other taxi drivers, in favor of increased regulation, rather than deregulation, for all. “I don’t find having a chauffeur’s license to be onerous. I think it’s wise,” she said. “I don’t think it’s wise to set a low bar for people in this industry because we are presenting [the area] to visitors.” She referenced the cab industries in New York and London, which are subject to extensive regulation. “If anything, I don’t think lowering the bar is going to help the community,” she said, and suggested the establishment of a separate Taxi and Limousine Commission. With a “growing community,” she said, “This is a growing issue. It would be nice to see an actual commission handling this.”

Discussion of the motion by council was comparatively brief and unanimous in its support, with hesitations expressed mostly over how to go about altering taxi regulation. Council member Susan Mims recommended the taxi regulation changes be made “simultaneously” and that, provided that unnecessary restrictions were lifted on taxi companies, she supported Uber.

Mayor pro tem Kingsley Botchway said that city council had made a mistake by not passing the TNC last year: “This one to me is kind of a no-brainer.”

Rockne Cole’s and Terry Dickens’ support came with reservation over an issue with the chauffeur’s licenses, which Eleanor Dilkes, city attorney, had said would not be required for TNCs in the city ordinance but might be trumped by state law. Cole said that if TNC drivers were conducting business without those licenses, “We are essentially having someone unwittingly committing a simple misdemeanor.” Uber’s Carroll said he couldn’t speak to the state law specifically,” but that Uber was “currently not requiring [chauffer licenses] in any other city in which we operate in Iowa,” except Des Moines.

“It’s absolutely critical that we have regulatory parity here and that we work very hard with our taxi cab providers to ensure that we have a fair playing field,” Cole said. He acknowledged that ride-sharing was an expectation for convention visitors and “we can’t afford to be a candle in the wind on this particular issue.” Cole offered support and said he expected staff would be able to address concerns regarding taxi regulation.

Pauline Taylor expressed the greatest hesitation of any council member. “I don’t doubt the benefits of Uber in the community,” she said. “I also do believe competition is good, but I don’t see it as good if one side has an unfair advantage over the other, and I see that as Uber kind of wanting to have that unfair advantage.” She noted that she would have liked to hear from the taxi companies how the industries in the Iowa cities currently with Uber have been affected.

Mayor Jim Throgmorton was the last to weigh in. “We as a council have discussed this, what, twice in the last two to three years?” he asked. “We’ve had a very clear understanding that this part of the transportation sector is changing and will continue to change. We don’t know exactly how it’s going to change but just that it’s going to.” He expressed “qualms about Uber’s model” and said he was not sure how it would work in Iowa City. But, Throgmorton said, “I want to find out.”

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