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Some Jacksonville Uber Drivers Call For More Regulations

Uber app on screen
Flickr Creative Commons

Some of Jacksonville’s ride-for-hire drivers are calling out Uber and the city for prioritizing certain cars.

And they are bringing their gripe to City Council.

Uber Black is Uber’s upscale service with nicer cars and professionalism akin to riding in a limousine. But Uber Black drivers also have to abide by more regulations than their more economical counterparts — UberX and Lyft.

Uber Black drivers — like taxi and limo drivers — must buy commercial insurance, undergo city background checks and apply for medallions. One Uber Black driver, who declined to be named for this story for fear of losing her job, said that means UberX drivers get an unfair advantage.

Her recent letter to the Jacksonville City Council was signed “Jax Uber Lady.”

“Uber Black provides a luxury service, a great service, and it was doing really well," she said, "and UberX is eating into our profits just horribly.”

Shortly after the Council passed regulations for the app-based black car service in 2013, Lyft entered the market with its cheaper, scaled down service. Uber followed, offering its economical Uber X in Jacksonville.

The Jax Uber Lady said it is Council’s responsibility to level the playing field — not just for cab drivers — but for all ride-for-hire drivers.

“We pay for the insurance. We pay all the expenses for our companies, and that’s great, we’re private contractors; we want to do that," she said on behalf of Uber Black drivers. "But they’re competing with us. They need to get medallions; they need to get the commercial insurance.”

Over the past couple of years, council members have discussed the difficulty of enforcing rules like ensuring “rogue” drivers don't pick up riders without using the app. Jax Uber Lady suggests the city should hire “secret shoppers” to ride, and send errant drivers a ticket after the fact.

Councilman Matt Schellenberg said the city did that, but the undercover riders were promptly banned from the service. Schellenberg said city employees were enlisted in the last couple years to test Uber compliance. After some drivers were reprimanded for not following the rules, those city employees’ credit cards and phone numbers were blocked from using the service.

“I’m not a police state,” he said. "Besides that, the lady doesn’t understand ... most people don’t understand the extraordinary cost to do this."

Councilman John Crescimbeni agreed that the secret shopper program doesn’t solve all problems.

“Banning that cell phone from calling in or banning that credit card from ever being used again is not any signal in my mind that these people want to play by the rules. In fact, it’s quite to the contrary,” he said.

Crescembeni said Uber Black drivers agreed to the 2013 regulations that made Uber Black akin to taxi and limousine service. And if drivers are struggling, it’s because customers don’t want to pay for the premium service.

On Wednesday, the city's Vehicle for Hire Committee decided to standardize vehicle inspections across the board. Both cab and Uber drivers would have to submit to annual inspections by the city or a third-party mechanic.

A taxi cab lobbyist objected, questioning the legitimacy of some mechanics, but Schellenberg shrugged it off.

“As a customer, at least in their case, you can report if the driver was any good or not and if the car was in bad condition, and if you have too many of those reports — as I understand it — you will not be able to be an Uber or Lyft driver,” he said.

Schellenberg says he hopes to have the last piece of the regulatory puzzle—driver background checks—settled when the committee meets again in two weeks. 

Ryan Benk is a former WJCT News reporter who joined the station in 2015 after working as a news researcher and reporter for NPR affiliate WFSU in Tallahassee.