Disgruntled taxi drivers gathered outside City Hall last Friday afternoon to argue companies like Uber and Lyft are violating Santa Barbara law. Congregating on the sidewalk and holding signs above their heads, several cabbies contended the drivers hailed by taxi apps get an unfair advantage because they are not bound by the same regulations that the 68 taxi companies here must adhere to. Murmurs from frustrated taxi drivers have circulated since Uber landed in town last fall — Lyft launched a couple of months ago — but Friday marked the first coordinated protest, as cab drivers claimed their revenue has since dropped by 60 percent.
Jonathan McKee with Door to Door Taxi argued that the taxi-app companies’ “partners” shirk the rigorous process of applying for a taxicab permit, a business license through the city finance department. “You need a business permit to sell hot dogs on the street corner,” asserted McKee. He also argued taxi companies must pay for commercial insurance, meet safety codes, list fares, and pass background checks conducted by law enforcement.
Uber and Lyft drivers also must clear background checks — albeit not through the police department. Instead, these booming transportation companies fall under the jurisdiction of the California Public Utilities Commission (PUC), which created a new regulatory class last year called transportation network companies. The action required such companies to implement a zero-tolerance policy on drugs and alcohol and sign up for $1 million per incident insurance coverage for crashes involving vehicles and drivers while they are providing services.
Uber spokesperson Eva Behrend maintained all drivers operate under the permit granted by the utilities commission. She also said their background checks includes county, multistate, and federal checks that go back seven years, the maximum time allowed by California law. “… [Uber is] proud that thousands of Santa Barbara area residents are using and enjoying the freedom afforded by our technology as both driver partners and riders,” she said in a statement.
But McKee asserted that each driver should be required to obtain a permit through the city to operate as a business in Santa Barbara. “It’s not fair to the drivers or to the public. Five people at the PUC said the economy is bad [and legalized transportation network companies],” McKee said. “We’re being duped.” (In the past, Santa Barbara cabbies have cried foul because an unlimited number of taxi companies can exist in the city; some companies are a one-car, one-driver operation. Approximately 500 cab drivers work the streets in Santa Barbara.)
The retaliation by cab companies is not unique, and a taxi association in London recently took legal action against Uber, a multibillion-dollar Silicon Valley start-up that has landed in 115 countries worldwide. In London, the dispute centers around whether or not the app constitutes a device fit to calculate a fare. Since these companies use smartphone GPS to calculate fares, their “meters” cannot be checked, while cab meters are subject to inspection, they argued.
Uber drivers are “partners” — not “employees” — the company maintains, and what constitutes as “on the job” has become a topic of debate. In San Francisco on New Year’s Eve, an Uber driver hit and killed a 6-year-old pedestrian. In response to a civil complaint filed against the company, Uber attorney Ann Asiano argued in a court filing the driver was not carrying a passenger at the time, driving to pick up a passenger, or receiving a request for service through the Uber app. (In March, Uber beefed up its commercial insurance policy to cover the time between trips to eliminate any ambiguity, Behrend said.)
Police spokesperson Sgt. Riley Harwood said, “While [the codes we have in place] do evolve, they are always behind the curve in terms of how companies evolve.” The PUC is not a local entity, and it does not have the ability to interface with these drivers and companies, which could be problematic in terms of regulation, said Harwood.
Santa Barbara Uber community manager Andy Iro said he was aware of the protests on Friday, and he maintained that Uber is a platform — drivers simply must have a clean driving background and comply with the training, he said: “Then anybody — even taxi drivers — can drive.”