Uber’s arrival in Columbia stirs up controversy, backlash from city

City Council is planning to debate transportation regulations at its Feb. 2 meeting.

After four Uber drivers were arrested in December for operating without proper licensing, city officials have been scrambling to craft new regulations that will accommodate Uber without alienating existing taxi services.

Since its entrance into Columbia in August, the ride-sharing company has been dogged by legal trouble and lack of regulations.

“We only got about two days’ notice before they arrived,” Deputy City Manager Tony St. Romaine said. “We were surprised, to say the least. We weren’t ready for them at all.”

City officials asked Uber to refrain from charging for rides until regulations could be updated, but after a brief promotional period, Uber drivers began charging for rides.

Uber maintains that it is a ride-sharing company and shouldn’t be subjected to the same rules as taxi companies, but St. Romaine dismissed the distinction.

“If you ask any reasonable person, they would say Uber is a taxi company and they should have to follow the same rules as the other taxi companies in Columbia,” he said.

Terry Nickerson, co-owner of Taxi Terry’s, said he has not been impressed with Uber’s operations in Columbia.

“Uber has no respect for rules and regulations and authority,” Nickerson said. “They have a good business idea, but their strategy across the country has been to show up and begin giving rides without waiting for the OK from the cities, and I don’t think they’re going to change. I think if they don’t like what the city decides, they’re going to continue operating in the closet.”

Nickerson said that after watching the success of companies like Uber and Lyft, he wants to develop an app for Taxi Terry’s that will be appealing to college students and smartphone users.

“Anyone who operates a business in Columbia would be stupid if they don’t tap into the college market,” Nickerson said. “But they’re not our foundation of our business ... If someone chooses to ride with Uber, I just ask that they do their homework. If you do your homework and check on these people and see what they’re up to, I guarantee that you’ll want to ride with Taxi Terry’s.”

Uber maintains that its ride-sharing, or, as St. Romaine calls it, “transportation networking,” is a modern and safe improvement upon other methods of transportation. According to information on its website, DUI rates decline by 10 percent in cities where Uber operates.

"In 260 cities and 53 countries, Uber is transforming the way people move around their cities,” an Uber spokesperson said. “In the U.S. alone, 22 jurisdictions have now adopted permanent regulatory frameworks for ridesharing, a transportation alternative that didn’t even exist four years ago. We look forward to continuing our work with the city of Columbia and are committed to the riders and drivers here who want safe, reliable, hassle-free options."

Uber already requires background checks for its drivers and inspections for their cars. Proposed regulations by the city of Columbia would enforce almost identical checks and inspections but would be conducted by the city.

St. Romaine said he used Uber in San Francisco and Chicago and appreciated the convenience and simplicity of ordering a ride on his phone.

“As a user, I am very impressed with the service,” he said. “But as an administrator, I have found them very frustrating to work with.”

City Council is due to debate taxi and transportation networking company regulations Feb. 2.

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