Adding in concessions for both sides, the Mobile City Council voted July 14 to amend its vehicle-for-hire ordinance to allow for the legal operation of ride-hailing service Uber and other similar companies within the city limits.
The unanimous vote came after weeks of back-and-forth involving representatives from both Uber and existing taxi service Mobile Bay Transportation on issues concerning insurance, background checks and fares.
Jarrod White, an attorney representing the taxi company owned by State Rep. Margie Wilcox, was one of two speakers in opposition to the amended ordinance. While White told councilors a public safety committee meeting was able to iron out “95 to 98 percent” of the issues, he suggested a few more.
For instance, he said since the amendment already allowed cabs to use dynamic pricing, like Uber, he wanted requirements for a standard fare removed. White said leaving the pricing requirements in place would be confusing for passengers. In addition, White said rules for the way a cab looks, or the need for a meter are unfair to cabbies.
Assistant City Attorney Florence Kessler told councilors during a pre-conference meeting the reason the mandates for uniform paint and signage remained was passengers hail taxis on the street and don’t require the use of a smartphone application, like Uber.
White argued that existing cabs in Mobile are typically hailed by a phone call and not randomly on the street. He suggested instead of requirements for the paint or lights on top of the vehicles, cabs be allowed to use a magnetic sign or decal, similar to what Uber drivers use on their personal vehicles.
White also argued for stricter insurance restrictions on the application-based service, similar to what commercial insurance cabs must have in order to operate. In lieu of commercial insurance, White asked councilors to consider requiring commercial insurance already offered by Uber to be in effect regardless of whether a driver’s individual insurance will cover an accident.
Kessler said Uber provides at least the same level of coverage as a cab company if there is a passenger in the vehicle. The insurance is effective from the moment the driver accepts a fare through to its completion.
While she voted in favor of the amendment, Councilwoman Bess Rich did ask audience members to imagine a scenario where an Uber driver, with the app turned on, but without a rider, rear-ends another vehicle. She said the Uber driver’s private insurance might turn down a claim because the application was engaged. Rich said this could lead to high out-of-pocket expenses for the driver and passenger of the other vehicles. She said she ultimately approved the amendment because the city has bigger priorities.
Rich blamed Mayor Sandy Stimpson’s Chief of Staff Colby Cooper for taking her concerns out of context and posting to social media on Saturday night that she was trying to “kill” Uber. Cooper admitted he posted comments about Rich’s opposition to Facebook and Twitter and provided copies of the posts and tweets to Lagniappe.
On Tuesday, he said he made the comments because her emails to the administration and fellow councilors of changes to the amendment offered by White appeared to be part of a “coordinated effort to make it as tough on Uber as possible.”
“The public needed to know where the resistance was coming from,” Cooper said.
Rich said she only provided information related to vehicle-for-hire insurance coverage, as something to think about and not as a way to “kill” the ride-hailing service.
Jim Walker, owner of three downtown restaurants including Union, Liquid Lounge and OK Bicycle Shop, was among the many speakers in favor of the amended ordinance. Walker told councilors that approving another form of transportation for the city would mean the downtown area would see greater tax revenue due to fewer concerns over drinking and driving.
He, and many others, also complained about the length of time it takes to hail a cab in the city.
In other business, the council voted to re-appropriate $32,805 from funds earmarked for a litter boat, to hire contractors to pick up trash by boat on Three Mile Creek, One Mile Creek and Dog River. The city already has plans to convert a donated boat into a litter boat and has a grant application pending for a third.
The council also approved the rezoning of a piece of property at the southwest corner of University Boulevard Service Road and Aurelia Street from residential to business to allow for a home for women and children, operated by Alabama Baptist Children’s Home. Descendents of Zach Logan opposed the measure because they wanted it to become a park in his honor.