Uber seeks mid-Missouri drivers, eyes expansion across state

Uber | Courtesy of Uber
Uber, which has encountered regulatory roadblocks in trying to enter the Kansas City and St. Louis markets, is now advertising for drivers in Columbia. | Courtesy of Uber

Uber has begun advertising for drivers in Columbia as it looks to expand across Missouri.

The San Francisco-based ride-sharing service is accepting applications on its website for drivers from Columbia and Jefferson City as it continues expanding in the U.S., especially in the Midwest.

Uber has a smartphone app that uses GPS to detect a rider’s location and connect them with the nearest available driver. A driver’s name and car details appear in the app, and users can message or call if they need a ride. The app keeps riders’ credit cards on file, so fares are automatically charged after rides without cash or card changing hands.

Uber spokeswoman Lauren Altmin, in response to an email inquiring about the company’s plans in the Columbia market, wrote that Uber was “exploring expansion in a number of cities across the country. Residents across Missouri have been opening the Uber app and asking us to come their towns and we look forward to exploring opportunities.”

While expanding across the country, Uber and its lower-cost arm, UberX, have encountered legal challenges. The taxi cab industry and others say Uber should be regulated as a taxi service and subject to insurance, background checks of drivers and other requirements.

In California, the first state to comprehensively amend its laws regarding transportation services, Uber and Lyft, another ride-sharing service, have been engaged in a battle with lawmakers to work around insurance regulations. California has created a new entity called “Transportation Network Companies” (TNC) to include Uber, Lyft, Sidecar and other app-based car services.

Cities such as Berlin and Seoul have banned the company from operating, and Uber has been fined $95,000 by the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission for illegal taxi operation. Closer to home, Uber has been involved in protracted negotiations with the Metropolitan Taxicab Commission to enter the St. Louis market.

Ride-sharing service Lyft can continue to operate in Kansas City at least until after a three-day trial set to begin Sept. 17.  | Courtesy of Creative Commons
Like Uber, Lyft has faced blowback upon entering many markets across the country and worldwide. | Courtesy of Creative Commons

In July, Uber’s premium service Uber Black, which uses professional drivers and high-end sedans, got regulatory permission to operate in the St. Louis metropolitan area, after the Metropolitan Taxicab Association tweaked rules to allow online car services such as Uber Black.

The St. Louis regulation explicitly prevents Uber from operating any cars other than “premium sedans” that are “no more than six years old.” However, low-cost ride-sharing services such as UberX and Lyft are still not permitted to operate, with a St.Louis circuit court order in July ordering Lyft to stop operating and advertising in the city. A hearing scheduled for August to decide on a permanent injunction has been delayed by a year, as per an agreement reached between Lyft and the Metropolitan Taxicab Commission.

Questions of adequate insurance continue to dog UberX, Lyft and other similar services. While UberX and Lyft both claim insurance limits of over $1 million, the insurance policy documents are not available to the public and thus can’t be confirmed.

Altmin said Uber was not yet operating in St. Louis but hopes the talks with the taxi commission would “ensure access to expanded transportation options for residents of the city.”

Janice Finley, who handles taxi and other business licenses for Columbia’s finance department, said city representatives have not been contacted by Uber to the best of her knowledge.

“If you’re transporting people from point A to point B and charging them for the seat and that’s your primary job, then you’re considered a taxi service,” Finley said. “You’d have to comply with all the regulations.”

“They need to provide insurance documentation, apply for a taxi business license, all of their vehicles need to be inspected and all their drivers need to be obtain a city chauffeur’s license,” she added.

Finley also said a commercial car service in Columbia would need an office within the city limits and a telephone number.

If Uber began operating in Columbia without permission from the city authorities, as it has in several other cities, Finley said she “would contact the city police department to monitor this type of activity.”

Stop sign in downtown Columbia. | Nicole Lunger/Missouri Business Alert
Some Columbia taxi services  want to stop Uber form entering the market if it won’t play by the same rules as their companies.  | Nicole Lunger/Missouri Business Alert

Angie Nickerson of Taxi Terry’s in Columbia said Uber has worked around safety and insurance regulations elsewhere that are required of traditional taxi companies.

“This is not like picking someone up on the way to Walmart,” Nickerson said. “They’re providing the same service as a normal taxi company but exploiting the loopholes in the law.”

“Competition is good when everybody plays by the same rules,” she added. “And they’re not playing by the same rules, which makes it very unfair competition.”

David Gilstrap, owner of Dave’s Car Service in Columbia, welcomed Uber’s possible arrival to the local market.

“A complete overhaul and revamp of this city’s taxi business is long overdue,” he said. “I believe Uber is a first-class operation. This country is full of innovation, and this is a step in taking the transportation industry forward.”

Ray Mundy, director of the Center for Transportation Studies at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, said Uber has a “very smart app, which provides wonderful service. But they’re pretty similar to a transportation broker or a dispatch company.”

He also drew attention to Uber’s variable pricing policies. “If it’s a football night in Columbia, UberX might charge eight or nine times the usual price,” he said.

Mundy advised Columbia regulators to be careful and go slow if Uber arrives. “It’s not old-fashioned to ask Uber to follow the rule of the land,” he said.

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