Uber and Lyft failed to win preliminary support for a change in Miami-Dade’s taxi and limousine laws that would legalize the companies’ fleet of freelance drivers hailed by cellphone apps.
County commissioners on Tuesday declined to endorse a legislative package that would give Uber, Lyft and other app-based car services permission to run competing services against Miami-Dade’s taxi companies. The companies would screen their own drivers and set their own rates, and not be governed by county rules that cap the number of cabs and fix fares higher than what Uber and Lyft typically charge.
Tuesday’s decision was mostly symbolic, since the ordinance is heading for a commission hearing anyway next month. Facing defeat, sponsor Esteban “Steve” Bovo, chairman of the commission’s transportation committee, agreed to defer his proposal so that it could be considered at a future meeting.
“I can count the votes,” Bovo said shortly after his motion to approve the ordinance almost failed for lack of a second.
The proposed ordinance would resolve a long-running battle between the influential local taxi industry and the deep-pocketed app-based companies that have won a national following. Uber and Lyft contract with drivers who use their personal vehicles to pick up passengers that book through the companies’ apps and pay for the transaction by phone.
“Nobody is unsympathetic to the upheavals that are part and parcel of any technological change,” said Monica Betancourt, a Lyft marketing executive and driver who addressed commissioners early in a three-hour string of public comments that was mostly dedicated to the driver ordinance. “But the fact that that change is difficult is not a reason to avoid it.”
Supporters of the change see Uber and Lyft, its smaller national competitor, providing the kind of high-tech convenience that taxi companies should have adopted years ago but didn’t, thanks in part to a system that discourages competition. Critics see the companies circumventing regulations designed to protect passengers, and being handed cost-free access to a market that already is challenging for taxi drivers trying to make a living in an industry that’s crucial to tourism.
Jean Jourdain, a North Miami taxi driver, said he took out a second mortgage about eight years ago to come up with the $200,000 he needed to buy a taxi medallion on the secondary market — one of only 2,121 cabbie franchises that Miami-Dade rules allow. Last week, he took a passenger about 20 blocks on an $11 fare that typically costs $6 in an Uber car. Jourdain said the passenger asked why he should take a cab.
“I couldn’t answer,” Jourdain said. “How long will it take for the taxi industry to go out of business?”
Both Uber and Lyft are defying current rules and operating illegally throughout Miami-Dade. But even as county regulators have issued more than 1,800 citations for Uber and Lyft drivers, Mayor Carlos Gimenez is calling for the legal changes needed to bring the companies into compliance. Miami-Dade’s tax-funded tourism bureau also endorses the legislative changes sought by Uber and Lyft.
Bovo’s ordinance would let “transportation network entities” screen their contracted drivers for criminal history, driving violations and vehicle safety. The companies would be subject to county audits and the drivers to spot inspections while driving. As part of a transportation network, the Uber and Lyft cars would be banned from picking up passengers who hadn’t booked through the companies’ apps. The ordinance still wouldn’t clear the way for Uber and Lyft to operate in Miami-Dade, since it’s contingent on Florida changing its for-hire insurance laws to allow for the companies’ coverage arrangements.
Jean Monestime, the commission chairman, said commissioners will be invited to a May 19 workshop on Bovo’s legislation. The public will also be able to speak on the issue, promising a repeat of Tuesday’s string of taxi drivers urging commissioners to reject the change. Uber and Lyft supporters were outnumbered in the commission chambers, but the companies will have a second shot to fill seats.
“We always anticipated this would be an uphill battle,” said Jorge Luis Lopez, a Lyft lobbyist. “We live to fight another day.”