After meeting with local taxi companies concerned with the ride-sharing app UberX, the Charleston Police Department plans to roll out a series of efforts that would discourage local drivers from offering the car service.
How UberX works
UberX is a GPS-enabled app available for Apple and Android devices that allows users to order rides from nearby drivers. Payment is calculated based on time and distance, and is drafted from the passenger's credit card that's linked to his or her app account.
Drivers registered with UberX are vetted by the company and if they pass background and driver history checks, Uber gives them company iPhones that are compatible with the app. When drivers want to offer rides for fares, they tap a button to go "online" which allows them to locate passengers requesting rides. Drivers earn 80 percent of the fares and are paid weekly with a direct deposit.
The police department will soon launch a campaign to inform the public about the potential risks involved with UberX, a GPS-enabled app that connects passengers to freelance drivers. The app launched two weeks ago in Charleston, Greenville, Columbia and Myrtle Beach.
Police also plan to engage in sting operations to begin issuing warnings to UberX drivers who are violating a range of local and state codes by driving their personal vehicles for fares. Eventually, undercover police will be handing them citations with a maximum fine of $1,049 instead of warnings.
Local taxi services Charleston Green Taxi and Going Coastal Transportation were quick to schedule a meeting with police to voice their concerns about the new app after it launched.
The company heads met Wednesday with Deputy Chief Anthony Elder, City Councilman Bill Moody, who is also the chairman of the city Traffic and Transportation Committee, and Janie Borden of the city's legal department.
The group echoed many points that have been stressed by cab companies and legislators in other cities, such as Uber's controversial method of recruiting average citizens to drive for the service, without abiding by many local and state rules that regulate taxi companies.
"I think when you look at Uber's ads on Facebook saying you can make $52,000 a year driving for them, it's very appealing in this town of kids that wait tables," said Clayton Dennard of Going Coastal Transportation.
AJ Franklin, an owner of Charleston Green Taxi, said it's an issue of public safety because UberX drivers have not been properly vetted by authorities, and they aren't backed with commercial auto insurance.
The group agreed unanimously, and went on to discuss how to discourage anyone from partnering with UberX as a driver.
"What I was looking at is, do we need to introduce a new ordinance? But it sounds to me like the laws are already there, all we need to do is to enforce it," Moody said. "We have a big public safety issue here, and we need to get them to understand that this a problem ... and that we do not intend to ignore it."
However, the city's strategy of penalizng UberX drivers may be futile. Taylor Bennett, a spokesman for Uber, said the company will pay for all the fines that its drivers in Charleston are issued by law enforcement officers, even if the drivers are cited more than once for the same violation.
That may not be an empty promise. The San Francisco-based technology company is backed by Google Ventures, which recently estimated that the company is worth more than $200 billion, according to Bloomberg.
Uber and its backers contend that UberX is not a traditional transportation service and therefore should not be regulated like one. The company has argued in courtrooms across the country that it has its own vetting process for drivers that is not as complicated as city and state requirements.
"Any effort by law enforcement to discourage drivers from partnering with Uber is the equivalent of discouraging people from pursuing entrepreneurship, making a living, and contributing to the economy," Bennett said. "Instead of listening to taxi companies complain about competition, authorities should listen to the people of Charleston who have embraced more choice and greater access to opportunity."
The popular tech-based car service has posed a threat to traditional cab companies across the globe after it introduced UberX last year. Many consumers appreciate features of the app like car-tracking services and the ability to rate drivers based on their customer service.
Tony Spencer, a visitor from Raleigh who is in town this week for a business trip, said he's used UberX twice since arriving in Charleston.
"I absolutely love it. I've been using it in bigger cities for a while," Spencer said. "I can get a ride quicker in a better car with better service for about the same rate (as a taxi)."
Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail