Vancouver questions legality of Uber rideshare service

UberX service not in code compliance, city attorney says

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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Vancouver could put the skids on a popular ridesharing service less than a month after it announced its arrival to the city.

UberX, the smartphone-based “cab” hailing service, might be on the outs before the rubber could hit the road. Following the company’s announcement of a soft launch in mid-July, Vancouver Assistant City Attorney Brent Boger issued a memo questioning the legality of the service.

“UberX, or any other (Transportation Network Companies) operating in Vancouver, is doing so without complying with the City taxicab requirements,” Boger wrote in a July 25 memo.

The company is a darling among tech-savvy penny pinchers but a bane to the legacy taxicab industry.

The 5-year-old company makes smartphone apps that connect passengers to private chauffeurs who are contacted via text message. The popularity of Uber has ballooned in recent years, with the service spreading to cities worldwide.

UberX is one of the company’s newer offerings, a pared-down service in which non-taxi vehicles driven by moonlighters pick up passengers at a fee that tends to be lower than what local cab companies offer. The company touts that with the click of a button a person can hail a car and pay for its service, with no tip required because the entire transaction happens on the front end with a flat fee.

Boger said by phone that city officials had met with the three cab companies licensed to operate inside Vancouver — Broadway Cab, Vancouver Cab and Radio Cab — and they voiced concerns about UberX.

Across the country, representatives for the cab and limousine industries have called Uber and unsafe option when compared to established companies.

“They think it’s unfair they have to comply with the regulations and Uber does not,” Boger said.

A spokesperson with Uber could not be immediately reached Thursday. But Brooke Steger, general manager of Uber Seattle, has said the company insures the cars and conducts background checks on its drivers.

While the city’s code doesn’t expressly refer to “Transportation Network Companies,” such as Uber — in part because they’re a relatively new phenomenon — the companies are undeniably taxi services, Boger wrote in his memo, and must comply with all city regulations.

All is not lost for the company, however. Vancouver plans to hold workshops on rideshare companies in the coming months, said Mayor Tim Leavitt, who plans to meet with company representatives next month.

Inroads in region

Elsewhere in the region, the company has gained a toehold.

The city of Seattle, where Uber has a regional office, recently approved new regulations for the company. Uber service was also recently added in Spokane and Tacoma.

Across the Columbia River, a representative for the Portland Bureau of Transportation has said the bureau is looking at possibly tweaking city code to accommodate rideshare companies.

In Vancouver, it will also likely take a change to the city code for the company to start operating, Assistant City Attorney Boger said.

That’s because, Boger said, for Uber to comply with what Vancouver currently has on the books, “They’d have to change their business model so much they wouldn’t be Uber anymore; they’d be just another cab company.”