If you’re one of the 2 million or so tourists who visit Key West, you’re not using Uber or any ride-sharing service for now.
City leaders outlawed the ever-present Uber and its ilk last summer, arresting three people who worked for the app-fueled company. The drivers took plea deals to avoid jail time overall.
Wednesday, more than 200 people filled Old City Hall in Key West for a three-hour workshop on all things Uber hosted by the City Commission. In a city that hasn’t held a lottery for taxi licenses since 1992 and where three fleets hold 56 of the 73 available licenses, things got heated quickly.
Dozens of taxi drivers and their supporters dominated the microphone in three-minute turns before the commission, many with prepared statements that included dramatic warnings of the danger they say Uber will bring to Key West, both economic and traffic-related.
“Just because something is cheap doesn’t mean it’s good,” said Savannah Stone, 31, a cab driver since 2011 who compared Uber to Wal-Mart. “They’re consumer- and CEO-friendly and the driver gets the short end of the stick.”
Others called Uber unsafe, bringing up cases of rape and murder in isolated incidents nationwide, and questioned whether the company plays on the same level playing field that cabs do when it comes to licensing and background checks.
One woman even suggested the company helps fund terrorist groups, and the crowd booed the one speaker, business owner and volunteer member of city advisory boards Richard Tallmadge, who said Uber is on its way whether some like it or not.
“This is change. Embrace the change,” Tallmadge said. “Uber will make Key West a better place.”
Janet Hinkle, who owns a sailboat charter, said Key West’s policies protect taxi companies from having to deal with competition — which she called “un-American.”
“Take a stand on the side of free enterprise,” Hinkle said. “Get out of the way of a company that wants to offer a better product to our tourists and citizens.”
Commissioners largely played to the crowd, thanking them for coming out and reassuring taxi fans that Key West won’t revise its anti-Uber law until the Florida Legislature provides some direction.
But City Commissioner Sam Kaufman said a number of locals want Uber in Key West.
“I’m one of them,” Kaufman said. “Whether we like it or not, the Legislature may make this a moot point for us. They may say the city may not prohibit Uber type services.”
Mayor Craig Cates said many Key West cabs are of substandard quality and cleanliness but told the crowd the majority of taxi drivers do a “tremendous job” and the city isn’t trying to cut them out of the market.
“No one here wants to hurt you guys,” Cates said.
Gwen Filosa: @KeyWestGwen on Twitter