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The Uber vs. Taxi Debate Heats Up in Louisville

The top official for Louisville Yellow Cab service is calling for uniformity in regulations governing both local taxi services and ride-sharing programs like Uber.Regulations should apply to “everyone in our industry,” said Steve Coston, the president of Yellow Cab in Louisville, speaking Wednesday at the Louisville Forum.But officials with Uber say they aren’t in the same industry as taxis. James Ondrey, general manager of Uber’s Kentucky region, said Uber is a technology company.“Uber itself is not providing the transportation,” he said.  “Uber doesn’t actually own any vehicles, it doesn’t employ any drivers, it has built a mobile technology platform.”Those nuances, he said, make Uber a different business than taxis.But Coston doesn’t buy in to those claims. He said they have “no merit.”“At the end of the day, they are providing the exact same service that I provide,” he said. In the past year, ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft began operating in Louisville.Coston said the ride-sharing services need to be held to the same level of scrutiny as taxi services. Those include adequate insurance coverage, driver background checks and oversight that ensures vehicles meet industry standards.Ondrey said Uber drivers go through a “rigorous” vetting process that includes criminal history, and if a passenger has a bad experience—be it due to vehicle quality or irresponsible driving—there is a comprehensive complaint process with a quick reaction time. Uber drivers are also backed by a $1 million commercial insurance policy that is applied when they are en route to pick up a passenger and during transport.“We take this very, very seriously,” he said. But Coston said that though he doesn’t doubt Uber’s safety procedure processes, he has qualms that Uber is not required to “show proof” these steps are taken.“They don’t have to show that to anyone, currently, from a regulatory standpoint in the state,” he said.But a recent emergency regulation filed with the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet looks to address these concerns.The regulations apply directly to transportation network companies—like Uber—and lay out a detailed list of rules the companies must follow in order to be allowed to operate in the state, such as requiring ride-sharing services to apply annually for operation rights, carry specific insurance policies and to keep a list of drivers.Drivers for these transportation network companies, per the emergency regulations, must now also pass national criminal background checks and update the background check every three years, be at least 21-years-old, have no felonies and pass a driver safety course, according to the regulations filed Dec. 5.Ondrey said antiquated regulations regarding taxi services in the state weren’t developed with advanced technologies and alternative transportation services in mind. Ondrey praised the adoption of “regulation when it’s common sense.”“When you’re addressing those right things for public safety insurance, background checks, vehicle inspections, those make sense,” he said.  “When you’re talking about regulations that throw up barriers to getting a driver on to the network, those are things that are archaic and unnecessary.”Ondrey said Uber is not looking to replace taxi service in Louisville.“We want to be seen as an alternative transportation option,” he said.  “Taxi has not ceased to exist in any city in which we are in.”Coston said Uber isn’t a threat to the taxi service, but he added that there has been a “slight decline” in ridership among taxis since Uber arrived earlier this year.“I think there is room for everybody and the ones who provide the best service will be the ones that come out the winner,” he said.Coston said the inaction from local government to enact regulations has been “frustrating” and transportation network companies like Uber have been allowed to “operate completely lawless.”“Which feels backwards to me,” he said.But Robert Kirchdorfer, from Louisville Metro's codes and regulation department, said after a first reading of the new emergency regulations it seems local governments will have no authority to establish Louisville-specific policies.“We would just follow the state regulations,” he said.

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.

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