Controversial code proposal pits City of Dallas, driving service Uber

Uber

Credit: AFP/Getty Images

Peter Faris is an independent driver in Washington, D.C. who works with Uber, a technology firm which has created a mobile app that lets consumers use their device to request a nearby taxi or limousine. (PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)

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by MATT GOODMAN

WFAA

Posted on August 27, 2013 at 2:52 PM

Updated Tuesday, Aug 27 at 4:19 PM

DALLAS ––The City of Dallas says it had authority to send Dallas police vice officers after the popular driving service Uber because an investigation found the San Francisco-based company  skirting municipal code.

On Friday, an item quietly popped up in the City Council's consent agenda proposing to rewrite Chapter 10A of the City Code, which contains regulations regarding limousine and luxury vehicles that offer for-hire transportation services.

The item was scheduled to hit the floor for a vote on Wednesday, much to the chagrin of Council member Scott Griggs, who asked Mayor Mike Rawlings to pull the item from the agenda so a committee could discuss it beforehand.

“It wasn’t even scheduled for discussion,” Griggs said. “This needs to be sent down to a committee to study this. We need to have public input, the public needs some more notice, the full Council needs to be briefed, and then we can have a thoughtful discussion about how to have competition in the market.”

Uber bills itself as a technology company rather than a transportation provider. However, the city’s Code Compliance Department found otherwise.

Customers use a smartphone app to dial up a driver and set a destination. The drivers, armed with company-provided iPhones, are selected using GPS. The closest to the customer is then dispatched, which, in essence, aims to provide a quicker response time than typical taxi services. It also calculates fares and tips using the smartphone.

Its declaration as a ‘technology’ company has gotten Uber into trouble before. In order to operate in New York, it had to agree to be part of a 12-month pilot program centered around businesses based on “e-hailing.” Los Angeles sent Uber a cease and desist letter in June for “operating an unlicensed for-profit commercial transportation service.”

The company’s also battling suits in Chicago, San Francisco, and Boston. The Federal Trade Commission waded into the battle between Uber and Washington D.C., recommending the city “avoid unwarranted regulatory restrictions on competition, and that any regulations should be no broader than necessary to address legitimate public safety and consumer protection concerns.

The proposed changes to Dallas’ city code are similar to those in other cities, which would cripple Uber and its technologically-minded ilk here. It would require luxury vehicles “to have sticker prices over $45,000.” It would mandate limousine services to arrive no sooner than 30 minutes following the request. It would also ban smartphones from calculating fares.

“This proposal to revise existing limo ordnances outside the normal City Council procedures is simply an orchestrated effort to limit competition for the taxi industry,” said Uber spokesperson Nairi Hourdajian. “The facts are simple: Uber is a technology company, not a transportation company. This proposal is akin to requiring Expedia to be licensed by the FAA.”

Predictably, 1500 Marilla doesn’t share that sentiment. City spokesman Frank Librio said code compliance isn’t trying to shut the company down or push it out of the market.

“If emerging companies like Uber are not subject to the same regulation as other limousine and taxi services, the public might have no recourse should the vehicle be involved in an accident; the consumer experience a pay dispute; or any other consumer protection or safety issue,” he said in a statement. “The proposed ordinance is intended to protect the consumers that enjoy this service.” 

Before the item made its way into the Council’s agenda, though, code compliance investigators caught wind of Uber’s operations and asked that Dallas police investigate, Librio said. Vice squad officers issued tickets to many Uber drivers –– some reports, like this one in the Dallas Morning News, say police wrote 61 tickets to 31 drivers. Librio couldn’t confirm that, and Dallas police punted the question back to the city.

Nevertheless, Griggs expressed concern that city staff was overstepping its bounds by attempting to set policy, which is the City Council’s job.

“It’s not the right way to make policy, to put items on an agenda at the last minute,” Griggs said. “We also have concerns about our public safety priorities. Should it be a priority for vice as management, though? To target some of their resources and go after Uber with stings?”

The public hasn’t exactly been receptive to the city’s proposal. #DallasNeedsUber is filled with support for the company and includes a promise from Mayor Mike Rawlings to “get to the bottom of this for Dallas citizens.” A petition on change.org is currently sitting at 10,421 supporters. 

The bottom line is that this proposal was added to the agenda at the last minute precisely because the anti-competitive interests it seeks to protect know that public opinion is not with them,” said Hourdajian, the Uber spokesperson. “These changes would not only limit consumer choice, but would reduce driver incomes and cut jobs from the for-hire industry.”

The Transportation and Trinity River Committee will take up the issue.

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