Today’s Lyft/Uber showdown

Today is the Board of County Commissioner’s meeting at which, among other agenda items, commissioners will decide on the fate of ride-hailing companies like Lyft and Uber. Starting at 9:30 a.m. at 111 NW 1st St., the meeting is a public forum, so attend and voice your opinion. If you can’t make it, catch the live stream here.

I challenge you to a duel

It feels like every couple of months we have this conversation. So what exactly is going down this time? And why should you pay attention now? Well, it’s pretty unusual, and that’s what makes it so important. There are two contradictory proposals up for review, so only one of them can move forward to a second reading.

Miami-Dade County Commission Chairman Jean Monestime and Vice Chairman Esteban L. Bovo, Jr., both have proposals. Monestime, who drove a cab for 5 years while in college, wants Uber and Lyft drivers to obtain chauffeur’s registration, wheelchair and stretcher transport training, and American Red Cross Standard First Aid training, just as taxi drivers do, according to the South Florida Business Journal. This is a much less prohibitive version of his original proposal, in which he also mandated insurance for 24-hours for every driver.

The letter Uber sent to its users.
The letter Uber sent to its users.

According to Uber, the company does not believe that there are any ordinances in Miami-Dade that currently address ride-hailing, and this is a chance to establish regulations. In response to the previous provision, Uber sent out a blitz email, calling his proposal “one of the most hostile ride-hailing laws in the country — and, if passed, would make it impossible for Uber to continue operating.”’ In a press conference last week, Monestime reeled back and said that he could consider allowing the companies “to opt out of the insurance requirement.”

By contrast, Bovo’s proposal, which is supported by Uber and Mayor Carlos Gimenez, would have less restrictive rules governing on ride-hailing. The proposal allows companies like Lyft and Uber to conduct their own background checks and submit them to the county on request, only providing insurance coverage when driving a passenger, and it would not require a chauffeur’s license, according to the South Florida Business Journal.

“Commissioner Monestime’s ordinance really misunderstands Lyft’s peer-to-peer model and treats it like a taxi,” counters Lyft’s ‎Public Policy Communications Manager Chelsea Wilson. “Commissioner Bovo’s ordinance is a good step forward, but there are some elements we think need work, for example some language around the airport. … That being said we’re continuing to have collaborative and productive conversations with Commissioner Bovo.”

But wait, there’s more

While these bills are considered at the County level, ride-hailing services are also being considered at the State level, once again. Last year Uber submitted two proposals to the state legislature in the House and the Senate, but neither had fully been considered and failed by default. The two new bills filed in the state legislature are SB 1326 and HB 817, which essentially would create a whole new type of business called a “transportation network company,” or TNC, according to Miami New Times. While Tallahassee considers statewide changes, Miami-Dade County is moving forward to finally create some clarity around the legality of ride-hailing services — for now, at least.

This will be the first reading on an almost three year long saga with ride-hailing companies, which started out with mixed feelings from the get-go. Here’s look back at what it took for the commission to get to this point.

From the beginning

On Jan, 22, 2013, the Miami-Dade County Taxi Advisory Group discussed ride hailing, with TAG members collectively deciding to stand behind current for-hire codes in the face of unregulated competition. But by June, Commissioner Audrey Edmonson submitted legislation to begin loosening some regulations, including ending mandatory hour-long wait times for passengers, expensive base rates, and fixed limits on town cars. In September, county commissioners discussed the proposal and seemed to be leaning towards deregulation.

Talks continued, going back and forth without much movement for almost a year. By February 2014, Uber investor Ashton Kutcher had enough and publicly slammed Miami’s strict regulations on the Jimmy Kimmel show, where he called the laws “ancient” and “mafioso.”

After a year-and-a-half of watching Uber’s repeated legislative failures, Lyft decided to hire three prominent Miami-Dade lobbyists to broach the issue before they launched. By May 23, 2014, Lyft ride-hailing began in Miami-Dade County, side-stepping the slow pace of governmental approval and operating unregulated.

Two weeks later, Uber followed suit. Within two days, punishments began, with law enforcement agencies issuing harsh fines and impounding vehicles. By June 11, 2014, taxi drivers urged the county to begin arresting Lyft and Uber drivers, and some county commissioners agreed.

Taxi drivers were hit hard by the expansion of the ride-hailing services. “It’s completely killed us,” taxi driver Kassa Meshehsa told the Miami Herald. In order to operate a taxi in Florida, drivers must purchase a medallion, which are limited to around 2,100 and costs $340,000, according to the Miami Herald. With the increased competition from ride-hailing services who do not face the same red tape to provide the same service, taxi drivers are burdened with heavy loans and increasing hardship to pay them back.

On June 11, 2014, at a Transportation & Aviation Committee hearing, Mayor Gimenez noted that while Miami-Dade County “was in need of the services provided by Uber and Lyft, it did not negate the fact that both companies were currently operating illegally.” The passing of a new bill continued to be delayed throughout the year. By Jan. 26, 2015, Uber hired a Tallahassee lobbyist. But not just any lobbyist — Ballard Partners, which, at the time, represented Miami-Dade in Tallahassee on entirely separate issues. Ballard ditched the county in favor of Uber and continues to represent them now.

Paralyzed politicians

Traffic (Courtesy of Aaron Escobar/Flickr Creative Commons)
Courtesy of Aaron Escobar/Flickr Creative Commons

Essentially, for a year-and-a-half, it was like the wild, wild west up in here. Taxi drivers were angry and both Lyft and Uber kept operating technically illegally and getting fined over and over. Meanwhile, politicians kept kicking the conversation to the next meeting.

By February 2015, taxi companies had enough. Three taxicab companies and four chauffeur-permit owners sued the companies, reigniting the long-delayed debate. By April, Bovo, chairman of the county commission’s transportation committee, submitted a proposal that would grant Uber and Lyft permission to operate as they have been. The proposal failed, and commissioners were invited to workshop the legislation the following month.

The total tally of fines to Uber drivers reached a staggering $2.7 million in July, which Uber suggested it would pay. On September 28, Miami-Dade Mayor Carlos Gimenez promised Miami-Dade residents that Uber and Lyft will be legal by the end of the year, but continued delays made that promise impossible.

Then Broward happened. Our neighbors to the north, who were having similar struggles, actually managed to pass some tough new legislation regulating Lyft and Uber, leading both companies to pull out in July 2015. People were NOT happy about it, and county commissioners were overwhelmed by angry residents showing up at meetings, calling their offices, and filling their inboxes with hate mail. So they gave in to the overwhelming public pressure, approving a new set of regulations that enabled companies to issue their own background checks and operate on their own insurance — two of the key roadblocks Miami-Dade County is still struggling to achieve consensus on.

Of course, back in Miami, that whole “end of the year” thing didn’t really pan out. By Dec. 1, Mayor Gimenez’s draft of the proposal to be considered was not ready according to Commissioner Bovo, so talks were further delayed until, well, today.

Finally, we’re here — no more delays, no more passing off the buck for another day. The commission will have a first reading and vote on one of the two proposals submitted, which could either expand or end ride-hailing in Miami-Dade County.

*Disclaimer: Lyft is a sponsorship partner of The New Tropic, but was not involved in the planning of this story.