Uber Car driver Sam Pevzner prepares Thursday to be dispatched to a call for a ride near the company's office on Sixth Street. (Photo by Daniel Archuleta)

Several City Council members want to remedy what they perceive as an uneven playing field favoring ride-hailing apps like Lyft and Uber.

Council hosted a study session about the future of professional drivers and the riders that rely on them at Tuesday night’s meeting.

The taxi franchise, which was established five years ago and allows only five taxi companies to operate in the Bay City, expires at the end of this year. Cab rides were down 27 percent last year — a result, by almost all accounts, of new transportation network companies (TNCs) like Uber and Lyft that allow riders to hail drivers with their smartphones.

Cabbies have pointed out that they are highly regulated by City Hall but that the Uber and Lyft drivers are not. City officials have noted that the ride-hailing companies are regulated by the state, leaving little to no room for local regulation of those drivers.

Still, city officials recommended that council provide curb space for these ride-hailing drivers. Currently, taxis can sit at allocated curb spaces but ride-hail drivers cannot.

One Uber driver testified that such an amendment would be meaningless. Drivers, he said, would prefer to cruise slowly near establishments whose patrons commonly use the app. A curb spot a few blocks away would do little to help a driver pick up a fare.

Further, he said pulling out a pink mustache — Lyft’s trademark — which his daughter bought at a garage sale, these spots could become free parking spaces for anyone with some easy-to-fake credentials.

Councilmember Ted Winterer asked why, if an Uber rider can hail a driver with their smartphone, would they need allotted curb space.

A representative of Uber, which has leased a 40,000-square-foot office space on Ocean Avenue, told council that the curb space would increase the ride-hailing company’s visibility in the community.

Winterer was unimpressed with this reasoning.

He asked if Uber would be willing to submit to local regulations in exchange for curb space. Would they agree, for instance, to the background checks that taxi drivers are required to undergo in Santa Monica?

The Uber representative did not answer the question directly, instead focusing on the challenges that would face the company were it subject to a “patchwork of regulations.”

“I understand the idea that well if there’s an Uber stand at the Expo someone will go, ‘Oh look, Uber!'” Councilmember Gleam Davis said, “but that could be accomplished by Uber buying advertising at the Expo station saying, ‘Remember, you can call Uber.’ I don’t think there has to be an Uber car there to remind people that Uber exists.”

Winterer suggested that curb space be allotted to vehicles for hire that are subject to local control; an idea that many of his colleagues agreed with.

City officials are expected to come back with changes to the local ordinances in the coming months.

In order to make taxi companies more economically sustainable, council may consider lowering the number of taxi companies allowed in the city and the number of cabs allowed on the street. The Daily Press will have more on the discussions surrounding the taxi franchises in the coming days.

dave@www.smdp.com

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