In the age of Uber, Miami-Dade County may stop checking whether taxi drivers can speak English well.
Rival proposals aimed at regulating the popular ride-hailing company also include significant changes to requirements for how cabs operate in Miami-Dade. Among the plans on the table: ending tests of first-time taxi drivers’ ability to speak English, and mandatory courses on local geography, tourist attractions and customer service that decades ago started as the “Miami Nice” program.
“We’re trying to make sure there is some kind of level playing field,” said Jean Monestime, the chairman of the county commission who also drove a taxi in Miami while attending college. “The language test isn’t required for Uber drivers, and shouldn’t be required for taxi drivers.”
The potential end to Miami-Dade’s taxi training captures the complicated landscape facing the 13-member county commission as it readies for the latest fight over Uber and its smaller rival, Lyft. At the center of the fight is whether to meet Uber’s demand that the companies screen their own drivers’ compliance with Miami-Dade rules, rather than expand the current practice of requiring for-hire drivers to undergo background checks by the county.
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On Wednesday, commissioners are slated to face the rare instance of competing legislation on the same agenda — each proposed by the two leaders of the board. Monestime’s proposed Uber legislation includes the county-screening rules and other regulations that Uber says are so strict they would force the company to abandon Miami-Dade and shut down operations.
Uber supports a bill by Esteban “Steve” Bovo, the commissioner Monestime selected to serve as the board’s vice-chairman and head its Transit committee.
Bovo’s proposed ordinance allows app-based rider providers like Uber to screen their own drivers, with company records subject to audits by county inspectors. Taxi companies would be given the same option, so that the county would no longer be required to screen cab drivers for criminal histories and traffic violations. Instead, the companies would conduct the screenings and certify that their drivers passed.
While the Bovo and Monestime ordinances differ on licensing and other top Uber sticking points, they both would end mandatory county training and testing for taxi drivers.
Currently, all first-time taxi drivers first must attend a four-day “Taxicab Chauffeur Apprenticeship Program” that includes instruction on customer service, Miami-Dade geography and tourist attractions, safety practices and compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, said Tere Florin, spokeswoman for the Department Regulatory and Economic Resources, which oversees the course.
There’s also a 100-question multiple-choice exam, and screening for English proficiency. By eliminating the process in order to put taxi drivers on par with Uber competitors, Bovo and Monestime also would largely dismantle a training regimen championed by the tourist industry. Tourist leaders helped start the program in the 1980s under a St. Thomas University program called “Miami Nice,” and that effort evolved into the current county courses.
“We would not want any rewriting of ordinances to minimize or take way from customer-service training,” said Rolando Aedo, senior vice president of tourism for the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We wouldn’t want to see anything that takes away from the customer’s ability to properly communicate.”
One of Uber’s top selling points has been the perception that Miami taxi drivers lack the competition needed to excel at customer service. Uber allows passengers to score drivers, with the system designed to make it harder for poor performers to get business.
“If you don’t have a certain grade with Uber, you’re out,” said Mayor Carlos Gimenez, who supports Bovo’s ordinance. “Because you don’t provide good quality customer service.”
Diego Feliciano, president of the South Florida Taxicab Association, warned tourists would suffer if Miami-Dade turns its back on cabbie training.
“If you’re talking about a major tourist destination, you want your drivers to know how to be courteous, know their way around, and know the rules,” Feliciano said.
The criticism captures one fault line in the Uber debate: how to meet the company’s demands for only the lightest oversight of its drivers while still maintaining regulations of how taxicabs operate. In Sarasota last year, city commissioners concluded the task was too complicated and opted to dismantle much of its taxi regulations while legalizing Uber.
Bovo’s legislation also would require taxis to provide “e-hailing” options that mirror the Uber booking process by letting passengers summon a taxi by a cellphone app. Many local taxi companies have adopted similar technology through FlyWheel and ZabCab, though it’s optional under current county rules.
“I’ve felt the taxi industry should look at this as an opportunity to improve themselves,” Bovo said. “I think what they’ve done, quite honestly, is bury their heads in the sand and hope these companies would go away.”