Uber, cab firms face off at forum

The city of Charleston is considering ways to regulate Uber.

Charleston City Councilman Mike Seekings opened the public forum by warning the large crowd that the matter at hand was not about whether Uber should be regulated, but how.

“I think we’re beyond that. This is more about how we make sure the public knows that the playing field out there is level, that Uber is safe … it’s not whether or not it’s going to happen, because it’s going to happen,” he said.

Still, the discussion for the next hour became somewhat of a turf war between local taxi companies and Uber drivers, who packed council chambers at City Hall on Tuesday.

The Traffic and Transportation Committee held the meeting to gather feedback about its proposed ordinance that would regulate Uber as a “transportation network company.” The term would classify and regulate Uber separately from taxis and limousines, which would allow the app-based ride service to charge its own prices and use freelance drivers operating their own personal vehicles.

About 10 Uber drivers spoke in favor of the ordinance. Most argued that there’s enough business in the transportation industry to support both Uber and taxis, given the number of tourists who visit Charleston. Several said they’d be willing to comply with whatever rules the city established.

“Things need to be on a level playing field, and I stand ready to comply with any rules to have a fair share of this market,” said Taft Navarro, a local Uber driver.

As for the 12 taxi drivers and cab company stakeholders who argued against Uber, the main consensus was that the city should not create a new set of rules for Uber, and that it should be regulated like a taxi service for safety reasons.

Others said the ride service was illegal, calling it a “gypsy cab” business.

Clayton Dennard, owner of the limousine service Going Coastal Transportation and president of the Charleston, S.C., Limousine Association, spoke for several taxi drivers and showed a short anti-Uber documentary that included testimony from lawmakers in other states who advised against allowing Uber to operate.

Jerry Crosby, president of Yellow Cab of Charleston, was one of the few who offered specific feedback about the proposed ordinance. He suggested cab companies also be allowed to charge what Uber calls “surge” pricing, or charging higher fares during periods of high demand, as long as the maximum fares are capped at a reasonable amount for all transportation services.

Janie Borden, the city attorney who helped draft the ordinance, said after the public meeting that she would re-examine the surge pricing issue before the next committee meeting.

Dave Baramore, a policy associate with Uber, traveled from Washington, D.C., to attend the forum, but he chose not to speak in order to give Uber drivers more time to offer their own testimonies. He said afterward that Uber would be “against any kind of cap” on surge pricing “and we hope to work with the committee and address their concerns in a way that doesn’t result in some kind of measure that limits it.”

“We’ve had conversations with the city’s legal team and I’m very encouraged by the progress we’ve made so far and I think we’re heading in the right direction,” he added. “I don’t think anything that was said today will change that momentum we have going for us.”

Reach Abigail Darlington at 937-5906 and follow her on Twitter @A_Big_Gail.