Curl up with this year's Housing Guide for dorm friendly recipes, curfew throwbacks and more, click here

Tampa’s rideshare test drive

SPECIAL TO THE ORACLE

What started as a dispute over county regulations has turned into a heated public debate between the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission (PTC) and ridesharing services Uber and Lyft.

The controversy came to a head Wednesday morning at a packed PTC meeting where Uber and Lyft drivers spoke out against what the companies see as overregulation of rideshare services and an anti-competition mindset on the part of the PTC.

“They’re anti-competitive and only serve to protect special interests,” said Taylor Bennett, a representative from Uber. “The PTC should listen to its residents and visitors who are demanding more choice, and work to improve Tampa’s transportation ecosystem by modernizing regulations, rather than stifle innovation and progress with antiquated rules.”

***

The fight between Uber, Lyft and the PTC started this summer, when the two companies began operating in Hillsborough County.

Since then the PTC has remained adamant that both San Francisco-based companies are operating in the county illegally as a taxi service. 

Both Uber and Lyft market their companies as ridesharing services, where preapproved persons can designate themselves as drivers and take others from one destination to another in their personal vehicles. 

All aspects of Uber and Lyft’s ridesharing services, from hailing the cab to paying for the ride, are done through a smartphone app that can give users real-time data on where the closest driver is located and allow customers to select the cheapest rate.

The frameworks under which Uber and Lyft operate are outside of most city and county regulations, including the PTC’s regulations, which set cab fares, license drivers and set general regulations on the taxi service market.

This has led to a number of battles between the company and local regulatory agencies throughout the country, jeopardizing the future of the mobile app that has gained popularity among college-aged consumers.

Both companies have looked to corner the market for 18- to 25-year-olds through direct marketing and tabling at a number of universities and colleges across the U.S. They have become most popular, and generated the most controversy, in large urban cities such as New Orleans, Los Angeles and New York City.

Initially, the PTC issued warnings to Uber and Lyft drivers found operating in Hillsborough County. 

More recently, the PTC began fining drivers and even pursuing misdemeanor criminal charges in some cases.

Both Lyft and Uber have paid for drivers’ fines.

Victor Crist, the Hillsborough County Commissioner for USF’s district and chairman of the PTC, said about two dozen drivers have been cited for operating an unlicensed taxi service.

“We didn’t drop the hammer on them, we have slowly eased into this,” Crist said. “We have run advertisements in newspapers, we have run advertisements on billboards … to tell drivers they may be approached by people to become illegal taxi drivers.”

Uber and Lyft representatives both listed fixed fares as a major issue they have with current regulations.

“Requiring a minimum trip cost and length has nothing to do with benefitting consumers, increasing public safety or expanding transportation options. Instead, it removes the flexibility, affordability, and convenience that has attracted both drivers and passengers to ridesharing,” said Lyft Public Policy Communications Manager Chelsea Wilson.

Crist claimed guidelines for fixed rates and wait times only apply to limousine services, which the traditional Lyft and Uber services do not fall under.

According to PTC Guidelines on rates, taxicabs only have a fixed maximum rate, not a minimum.

Crist said the biggest problems the PTC has with Uber and Lyft deal with issues of passenger safety and insurance.

Uber and Lyft’s background checks are based on driver’s license and social security numbers. 

Crist said the PTC believes both companies’ background checks don’t hold up to PTC standards that require fingerprinting.

Background checks currently performed by Uber and Lyft do not return results from outside Florida.

“Any place of security requires a fingerprint background check,” Crist said. “The only way you can tap into the FBI database and get a nation-wide check is with fingerprints.”

PTC regulations also require taxi cab drivers to have comprehensive liability insurance, which Crist said both companies do not have.

Bennett confirmed Lyft’s current liability insurance only takes effect when a customer gets into a driver’s vehicle and the ride is continuing to register on the mobile app. Once the ride has been completed and it no longer registers on the app, the driver isn’t covered.

“In between trips you are not covered,” Crist said. “You get into a wreck in between and that liability policy doesn’t work then and that’s not right. You are putting people on the street, you’re putting pedestrians and other vehicles at risk.”

According to Crist, the type of umbrella liability insurance policy that Uber and Lyft provide to their drivers also does not pay out medical or personal injury expenses without a lawsuit. 

“There’s a lot of unanswered aspects of the insurance that aren’t fully covered under what we require,” he said. 

Lisa Montelione, the Tampa City Councilwoman representing USF’s district, has been an outspoken proponent of Uber and Lyft.

Montelione said she believes the PTC’s current approach to Uber and Lyft is too adversarial and the PTC regulations are not up to speed with changes in current technology.

Though she has supported Uber and Lyft in their fight against the PTC, Montelione said she is concerned Tampa residents who are signing up to become drivers are being used as political pawns.

“The way they are breaking into the market, to me, are using individuals as their test case,” she said. “They should disclose to (drivers) that they are testing this market and the possibility of being fined and or charged with a crime is a real possibility.”

When asked if drivers in Tampa are made aware they may face fines or criminal penalties, Bennett and Wilson both declined to comment on behalf of Uber and Lyft.

Montelione, who is also the Vice Chair of the non-profit Metropolitan Planning Organization, said once the PTC and Uber and Lyft resolve the issues currently on the table, she sees ridesharing services playing a role in the future of Tampa’s transportation network.

“Uber and Lyft are certainly not the last evolution of these services,” she said. “We need to accommodate for all of these products that look to take more vehicles off our road and into our public transit system.”

***

While the PTC has been at the negotiating table with Lyft over the last few months, Crist said Uber has been more difficult to deal with and, at times, unresponsive.

“Lyft has been a lot easier to work with and a lot more receptive to negotiations,” he said. “Uber’s attitude has been ‘Take it or leave it.’”

While Crist claims the PTC has no animosity toward Uber and Lyft, Uber has recently began an advertisement campaign against Crist and another member of the PTC, Al Higginbotham. 

Crist has claimed the advertisements are illegal because Uber did not publicly disclose the reason for sending the advertisements and how much they’ve paid for the advertisements.

“That’s how Uber does business,” Crist said. “They just do what they want and when they want to do it. They don’t care.”

Both Crist and Higginbotham are up for re-election in November.

The PTC is currently working with business leaders in the public transportation industry to find out how they can bring their regulations up to date. Crist said the PTC spent the summer modifying its rules and regulatory authority to take new business models such as Uber and Lyft into account.

“With the changing of the millennium has come a new generation of people who are more tech-savvy, more technology reliant and that demand for more technical interaction in their life,” Crist said. “We’ve got to remain open for cutting edge technology and opportunities.”

Despite what Crist sees as openness for negotiating on part of the PTC, Uber and Lyft said they will continue to operate in Hillsborough County under their current business model.

“All they have to do to be legal is either get a permit for their vehicle or get their drivers licensed,” Crist said. “It’s not that hard.”

The board is now waiting on an insurance regulation report to continue the conversation on ridesharing operations within Hillsborough County. The next PTC meeting is Oct. 8.