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New taxi code gives green light to Uber

Unanimous Vancouver City Council vote levels playing field

By Justin Runquist, Columbian Small Cities Reporter
Published: February 24, 2015, 12:00am

The Vancouver City Council settled a seven-month debate Monday night on the rise of ride-sharing companies, opening the door for Uber to legally do business in the city.

With unanimous approval, the council agreed to adopt a new taxi code that aims to create a level playing field for the city’s legacy taxi companies — Vancouver Cab, Broadway Cab and Radio Cab — and the new wave of ride-sharing networks, such as Uber and Lyft.

The ride-sharing companies allow anyone with a smartphone to catch a ride with drivers registered through the network, and fares are often a fraction of the cost charged by traditional cab companies.

Uber came to Vancouver in mid-July. Today, the company has hundreds of unpermitted drivers in the Portland-Vancouver area, and dozens of them work primarily in Vancouver, said Brooke Steger, the general manager of the company’s Seattle operation.

Four people from the audience spoke during a public hearing before a city council decision that was capped off with a “reluctantly yes” vote from Councilor Bill Turlay. Most of those testifying Monday supported the move to adopt a new taxi code.

Jonathan Hopkins, an operations and logistics manager for Uber’s Northwest arm, praised the new code as a deal that could work for both sides of the debate.

“We see this ordinance as a good compromise that will enable ride-sharing in the city of Vancouver, as well as support the small businesses of hundreds of drivers in the area,” Hopkins said. “Safety is our No. 1 priority on this.”

The new code imposes the same standards for driver training, background checks, safety precautions, insurance and operations on both the traditional cab companies and the new ride-sharing networks. Each will have to pay an annual $200 certification fee for a special license to pick up riders in Vancouver.

Companies caught violating the law will face a fine of up to $10,000 for every driver without that license. Unlicensed drivers will also have to pay a fine of up to $1,000 for every violation of the law they commit. Violators could be charged with a gross misdemeanor, and they could spend up to a year behind bars.

Shannon Stewart, a spokeswoman for Vancouver Cab, said the new code is a step forward. Nonetheless, she still shared some frustration that Uber was able to illegally operate in the city for several months.

“I’d also like to just say that as far as being here legally and legally providing services, that when a company as big as Uber comes in and snubs its nose at your requirements and your laws, it’s a slap in the face to each and every one of us that abide your rules and your laws,” she said. “It is extremely troublesome to sit and watch that happen for more than seven months without a single fine levied.”

Vancouver’s taxi code dates to 1939. Since its inception, the code has undergone a number of changes, and the result is a fairly complex regulatory system, said Lloyd Tyler, the city’s chief financial officer.

But the code doesn’t accommodate new business models, and it was never designed to regulate companies like Uber.

As the council struggled with how strictly to regulate Uber, the city of Portland took a harsher stance.

In December, the city of Portland filed a lawsuit against the company, demanding it cease operations within Portland city limits. Shortly after that, Uber placed a voluntary three-month moratorium on service in Portland. Mayor Charlie Hales said Uber drivers can begin working again by April 9, once new taxi regulations have gone into effect.

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Columbian Small Cities Reporter