Two of the nation’s largest ride-booking service companies, Lyft and Uber, have been operating in Spokane under interim operating agreements they signed with the city in late September, and they appear to be thriving, with drivers saying they enjoy the extra income and passengers saying they like the service.
However, some cab company owners are unhappy and say Uber and Lyft drivers have violated the agreement repeatedly.
Lyft and Uber use smart phone apps to arrange transactions to transport passengers. Riders who want to use the app download it to a mobile device, and sign up for the service. They open the app when they need a ride, and typically can select from a number of available drivers who are near their location. The drivers are paid via a credit card; no cash transactions are allowed.
Although the service Uber and Lyft provides isn’t exactly a ride from a friend, it’s also not technically a taxi since drivers are contract employees who can work as much or as little as they want, and use their own vehicles with no meters on the dash.
Some of the most common complaints from the cab companies are that Uber and Lyft drivers violate the agreements by parking in taxi zones, actively advertising in food service spaces, and soliciting customers on sidewalks outside bars and restaurants.
Bill Boomer, owner of Spokane-based Bill’s Friendly Fares, says Uber and Lyft drivers are taking business away from taxis, and are in violation of their agreement.
“I want fair competition,” Boomer says. “Business is a ruthless game, but it has to be on a level playing field. People should have to follow regulations.”
The two San Francisco-based, ride-share companies consistently have been at odds with cab companies in other cities and in a few states such as Virginia, which recently authorized the use of private vehicles for public transportation with rules governing insurance coverage, background checks, and other requirements for drivers. The ride-share companies have argued that they are technology companies rather than transportation companies, which they contend make them exempt from regulations.
Since Lyft and Uber arrived in Spokane, taxi companies here have questioned their legality, saying they should come under the same regulations as taxis, and should pay the same city and state fees the taxi companies are required to pay.
Marlene Feist, city spokeswoman, says 84 taxis currently are operating in the city and the for-hire vehicles don’t have the same requirements as the ride-share companies.
In the city of Spokane, for-hire vehicles pay $100 for an annual vehicle license, $100 for annual vehicle inspection fees, $25 to register a meter in each taxi and $55 for a for-hire driver license, Feist says. Taxis also are regulated by Washington state law, which may require additional fees, she adds.
“They would also need a valid business license and must comply with a variety of other documentation requirements,” Feist says.
State law reads, “Ride-sharing vehicles are not deemed for-hire vehicles and do not fall within the provisions affecting for-hire vehicles, whether or not the ride-sharing operator receives compensation.”
City Councilman Mike Fagan went to bat for Spokane taxi companies during negotiations over the Uber and Lift agreements, before and after the city passed the interim agreement. Sheryl McGrath, Fagan’s legislative aide, says she has been fielding complaints from Spokane cab companies since the interim operating agreement went into effect. She estimates she has received about five complaints every week stemming from incidents with Uber and Lyft drivers, since last September.
“I receive the complaints and pass them along to Councilman Fagan and city parking enforcement,” she says.
Boomer says ride-share drivers promote their service by advertising in bars downtown, and have solicited customers in person, although they’re only authorized to communicate with riders online.
Boomer estimates that with city and state licenses and taxes, as well as vehicle inspections and other requirements, it costs close to $1,000 to set up a taxi and driver in Spokane.
Ben Stuckart, City Council president, says nobody has brought any of the complaints to him since last October, after he negotiated the temporary agreement with both companies.
In September, the Council also made changes to taxi regulations meant to level the playing field between taxis and ride-share companies by reducing rules on taxi inspections and lowering fees for hiring new drivers.
“We loosened regulations on taxi drivers too, and I think we did a good job of balancing both the taxi drivers’ concerns and those of Uber and Lyft,” Stuckart says. “As far as I knew, the taxi drivers were happy with the progress.”
Stuckart says the city struck a balance with both parties by charging Uber and Lyft per-ride fees.
The operating agreement requires Uber and Lyft to track the number of rides its drivers provide, and pay 10 cents per-ride fees quarterly, up to an annual cap of $10,000 each. The companies also are required to maintain accurate records of its drivers. Drivers must transmit electronic receipts to passengers’ email addresses or mobile devices, and they cannot solicit potential riders or accept street hails the agreement says.
“We charged them per ride fees for operating in the city instead of a large fee up front, because some of their drivers only drive once a month, so this seems fairer,” he adds.
Stuckart says if taxi companies feel the ride-share drivers aren’t following the agreement, they can file a complaint.
“I literally have not heard a word from any of the taxi companies,” he says. “We’ll see how the first year goes.”
He says the Council will have the option of making the agreement permanent or changing it after a year.
City spokeswoman Feist says the city’s total compensation from both companies is $2,023 for fourth quarter 2014. The city declined to disclose Uber and Lyft’s share of the total sum. Ride-share drivers provided 6,743 rides per month based on 30 days per month, or 224 rides per day in the city over the three months in 2014.
Corey Marcoux, a local restaurant manager, says he began driving for Uber and Lyft last April but had to stop in January because his car is too old. Uber and Lyft require drivers’ vehicles to be no older than 10 years.
Marcoux says he averaged $300 to $500 each week when he was driving part time, and his highest take-home pay was about $1,700 in one week. “That was a Friday, Saturday and a partial Sunday,” Marcoux says. “And it was the weekend of Gonzaga University’s graduation.”
He says that business slowed down after the first three or four months the ride shares started in Spokane.
Chris Lewis, a full-time software support representative in Spokane, says he started driving part time for both Uber and Lyft in early June. He doesn’t have a preference for either company, he says, and is able to work part-time nights and weekends for both. He declined to disclose earnings.
Lewis says both companies ran extensive background checks and informed him about the regulations under the operating agreement with the city.
Jackie Collins, a mother of three young children, has been a Lyft driver for about a month. Her husband is a professor at Eastern Washington University, and she doesn’t work outside the home aside from driving part time. She says the extra money helps. “It’s a little bit added to the budget,” she says.
“I’m really a people person,” she says. “This way I get to meet people and talk with them; that’s what appeals to me. Most of them are interested in having a conversation. I’m really friendly and I enjoy meeting people and talking to them for the few minutes that they’re in my car,” she adds.
She says a lot of her riders are people who want a safe ride home after partying.
Chelsea Wilson, spokeswoman at Lyft in San Francisco, says the company advises drivers of its regulations and specific agreements with various cities. She says Lyft drivers are firefighters, teachers, and other community members who have a couple extra hours a week to drive people.
“It’s an economic opportunity that helps them get by,” Wilson says. Wilson declines to disclose specific numbers of Lyft drivers, saying only that they have tens of thousands of drivers across the country. She says all Lyft drivers have to undergo an extensive criminal background check, must have a valid driver’s license, and an in-person session with a mentor driver who also performs a 19-point vehicle inspection. All drivers are required to have insurance.
“We have operating agreements in nearly 30 cities and states,” she says.
Michael Amodeo, a San Francisco-based spokesman for Uber, says its app connects riders with reliable, affordable rides in 270 cities and 56 countries.
“The way we look at it is we want to serve the demand for reliable rides wherever. Ride sharing offers prices 60 percent cheaper than a taxi,” Amodeo says.
He says Uber has temporary operating agreements in various cities that provide regulatory frameworks that “hopefully turn into long-term solutions,” he says.
Megan Cox, a loan accountant at Spokane-based Northwest Farm Credit Services, says she and her friends use the Lyft app “all the time.”
She says she can usually see four to five available drivers on her mobile device, who are near her location. “I usually have somebody to me within less than 10 minutes,” she adds.
She says the price is right, and she loves how convenient the services are.
“It is so cool that Spokane even has this. I was in Bellingham and Tacoma over the weekend and they don’t have the services,” she says.
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