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Seattle City Council votes to take a closer look at ride-hailing services

Uber is not happy

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The Seattle City Council voted today to begin a process of revising laws governing ride-hailing companies like Lyft and Uber. While the typical user won’t notice anything right away, the legislation, introduced by City Council President Bruce Harrell, begins a process of collecting data from both taxi companies and what the legislation calls “transportation network companies,” or TNCs, to inform future legislation.

The resolution has been widely panned by Uber. The company has been asking Seattle riders to sign a Change.org petition—which now has more than 20,000 signatures—demanding the City Council not raise rates for ride-hailing apps.

“The Council ignored the testimony of dozens of drivers and riders and more than 20,000 people who signed a petition to keep [ride-hailing] affordable,” said Uber general manager for the Pacific Northwest Ale Chouza in a statement. “Today’s vote was another step toward nearly doubling the per mile rate for [ride-hailing] and making Seattle an even more expensive place to live, all apparently at the request of the Teamsters and to protect market share for taxi.”

Today’s vote, however, did not raise per-mile rates for Uber, Lyft, conventional taxis, or anyone else. It just signaled an intent to raise the base fare. The legislation directs City Council to “consider legislation to establish a set of minimum charges across all segments of the for-hire transportation industry to ensure fair market access to all participants,” and brings raising base fare (not per-mile fare) from $1.35 to $2.40 as an option to consider, but doesn’t codify any specific changes to pricing structure.

In advance of the City Council vote, Harrell also denied that the legislation came from the Teamsters. In addition to representing taxi drivers, the Teamsters have been organizing Uber and Lyft drivers for years; legislation passed three years ago would have allowed those drivers to unionize with the Teamsters—meaning the union would also represent Uber drivers and other kinds of contract for-hire drivers—but it’s still tied up in court.

“Drivers sometimes work 12 to 15 hours a day to make less than minimum wage,” said one driver at City Council last week, wearing a sticker associated with a Teamsters-led campaign.

“I drive 40 hours a week... I don’t make minimum wage,” said another, also wearing the Teamsters sticker. “It’s been a long time in my life tomorrow you’re going to be hearing from a bunch of Uber drivers saying they’re making $100,000 a year. I’m going to leave [a breakdown of my earnings] with you. I’m going to ask them to do the same.”

Still, in stark contrast to last week’s full City Council meeting that saw more drivers speaking in favor of reforms, this week’s City Council meeting brought a full-court press in favor of Uber. Some drivers, many associating with the the partially Uber-funded nonprofit Drive Forward, claimed reforms would affect their flexibility.

“These aren’t bad jobs,” said one driver at today’s City Council meeting. “Any quote-on-quote ride share driver who tells you they make $3 an hour is clearly BSing you, okay? They’re probably some jaded cab drivers that have been around for a long time and want things to go back to the way they were... don’t change things to mess it up for the rest of us.”

Occasionally, testimony from the for-hire industry got a little more heated; one independent ride-share operator accused drivers that earn what breaks down to a sub-minimum-wage rate as not “knowing how to run a business.”

Some passengers touted Uber as the only affordable solution to mobility issues that make driving or riding the bus difficult.

“As a senior with no vehicle the Uber service is so helpful for medical at a variety of hospitals,” said rider Lora Lee in a Change.org comment distributed to the press by Uber. “Walking is very difficult for me and many bus stop often means several blocks walk to [my] destination.”

Some people, however, just don’t want to pay more for Uber.

“We visit Seattle frequently and use Uber frequently,” said rider Elizabeth Bellew in a comment, also issued by Uber. “Don’t make us delete Seattle from our itineraries.”

We asked Uber if the company intends to establish separate fares for people with lower incomes and disabilities like King County Metro does. We’ll update if we hear back.

While the most heated point of the legislation is on the idea of maybe, possibly raising base fare, the most concrete thing the legislation does is request data from taxi companies, for-hire drivers, and companies like Uber to identify the scope of the issues affecting ride-hailing drivers and passengers. Specifically, the city is requesting:

  • Hours each driver works (or hours spent logged onto the platform)
  • The number of trips each driver completes, the distance traveled on those trips with a passenger in the car, the distance traveled to pick up a passenger, and, in the case of companies like Uber, the total distance traveled while logged into the app
  • The value of fares charged, and
  • Compensation to drivers for the year 2017.

The legislation asks the companies to share data with the city by the end of May. If companies don’t provide the data, then the Council might turn around and require the data from companies.

After the city has obtained the data, then City Council will analyze it and start introducing reforms. While special attention is given to raising base fare—again, not per-mile fare, although that’s always a possibility—the text of the legislation also brings up changes to driver insurance requirements to lower costs, adding other kinds of drivers to the city’s Taxicab Advisory Commission, “adding flexibility” to operator costs, and consolidation and leveling of operating fees.

The City Council hopes to have more concrete ideas by June and more specific legislation—maybe, at that point, some adjustment to fare regulation—ready by the end of September.