As ride-hailing service Uber spreads from Mobile into Baldwin County, coastal Alabama’s municipalities east of Mobile Bay are trying to figure out how to deal with an influx of unregulated, unlicensed, taxi-style drivers.
Typically, Uber does not share concrete figures for the number of drivers in any given area, but Uber Gulf Coast General Manager Tom Hayes said there are “dozens” of Uber drivers operating in Baldwin County.
“It’s important to remember that local drivers use the Uber platform whenever they want, wherever they want, so the number of Uber driver-partners in a particular area is always changing,” Hayes said. “The response from local drivers wanting to partner with Uber and use our platform for supplemental income has been overwhelmingly positive.”
Nowhere is the influx of drivers more apparent than in Baldwin’s beach towns of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. In Orange Beach, Uber drivers are competing with the city’s 15 legally registered taxi companies, which have 56 total taxi cars available for service in the city.
Orange Beach Mayor Tony Kennon said the city placed a moratorium on additional taxi licenses until it can figure out what to do about Uber. Currently, he said, Uber is not licensed to legally operate in the city. Orange Beach requires taxi companies to apply for a business license, which is followed by a background check of drivers and a city-run inspection of taxi vehicles.
Kennon said the moratorium is intended to give the city more time to investigate Uber, and vice versa, allowing the company to study the city’s ordinance. He said the city is essentially giving Uber a “grace period,” where it won’t aggressively ticket drivers until the company has time to go through the licensing process.
The mayor said the moratorium was also originally intended to protect local taxi companies from those that come from out of town and only operate during the city’s busy tourism season.
“Because the taxi industry is so seasonal here, the revenues for our local companies get stretched out for the entire year,” Kennon said. “We have three or four months of big revenues, then the out-of-town companies leave and aren’t here all year. We want to better protect our local companies who are here all 12 months.”
While the taxi license moratorium is in place, Kennon said Uber is welcome to apply for a license to legally operate, just like other companies.
“This is nothing personal against Uber, but they have to abide by the same ordinance that our other taxi companies abide by,” he said.
Richard Springsteen, an officer with the Orange Beach Police Department, said Uber drivers are easily identified because of the Uber sticker they place on the backs of their cars. He said the city has yet to write any tickets to Uber drivers, but if they are caught in the act of offering a pay-to-ride service, drivers could be ticketed like any other business operating without a license.
“There are a lot of taxi companies here who do the right thing,” Springsteen said. “They pay the fees and buy the business license. It wouldn’t be fair to make those people do that, then let Uber operate without going through the same process.”
Gulf Shores Police Sgt. Jason Woodruff said Uber drivers are under similar scrutiny there. Drivers caught offering Uber service without a license could face a court summons, fines or both. Just like other businesses operating without a license in the city, Woodruff said repeat offenders could face jail time.
“Our stance is simple,” Woodruff said. “We don’t have a vendetta or a task force against it, but right now Uber drivers don’t have a license to operate a business in the city.”
A July 28 Facebook post from the GSPD warned Uber is not licensed to operate in the city and the department would take action against those operating without a license. The post also said the department believed Uber is “highly dangerous” and warned against “getting into a car with someone you do not know.” The post was later edited to a simple warning about the company not being legally licensed to operate. Woodruff said the post was made in response to complaints from local taxi companies.
“I think it might have been taken out of context and maybe could have been worded differently, but regardless, we want the public to know we do take Uber seriously,” Woodruff said.
Hayes believes because Uber is a non-traditional company, municipalities should take a non-traditional view of how to regulate its use. He cited the city of Mobile, which amended its vehicle-for-hire ordinance to include Uber.
“Ridesharing is a new concept that doesn’t fit the model of traditional taxi regulations,” Hayes said. “More than 40 states and cities — including neighboring Mobile — have passed new frameworks designed specifically to regulate this innovative job-creating technology.”
On the Eastern Shore, the Fairhope City Council repealed its current vehicle-for-hire ordinance and replaced it with one accommodating Uber at its Aug. 24 meeting. Council President Jack Burrell said the city will license with Uber, not its individual drivers. City Clerk Lisa Hanks said she looked at Mobile’s vehicle-for-hire ordinance before adding Uber to Fairhope’s ordinance. The city will also require drivers to carry liability insurance and undergo a background check.
“This is going to be enforced just like we do with taxicabs,” Hanks said.
Spanish Fort Mayor Mike McMillan said the city has not been approached by Uber and he was unaware of any of its drivers operating in the city. He said Spanish Fort will take a “wait and see” approach, looking at how neighboring cities deal with Uber, before making a decision. He said if Uber were to operate in the city, Spanish Fort would treat it as any other business.
At the Aug. 3 Daphne City Council meeting, Mayor Dane Haygood said he asked the council to consider addressing Uber as a taxi service through the city’s Ordinance Committee.