Miami-Dade County

The pros and cons of legalizing Uber in Miami-Dade County

A screenshot of the Uber app, showing cars available in downtown Miami.
A screenshot of the Uber app, showing cars available in downtown Miami. Miami Herald file photo

Uber faces a showdown in Miami-Dade County on Tuesday, when commissioners are scheduled for a final vote to legalize the company’s popular ride-hailing service.

It’s been a fight roughly two years in the making. In the summer of 2014, Uber and its smaller competitor, Lyft, both defied the county’s taxi laws to launch their app-based hailing businesses in Miami-Dade.

Their drivers have since racked up more than $3 million in fines while building a thriving business in Florida’s largest county, all the while increasing political pressure to legalize a service embraced by residents countywide.

Now the San Francisco-based tech giants are confident they have enough support on the 13-member County Commission to pass the pro-industry bill sponsored by Commissioner Esteban “Steve” Bovo. If the bill is adopted, Uber and Lyft would be officially legal in Miami-Dade 10 days later.

What’s at stake? Here are some benefits Uber and Lyft tout for Miami-Dade County, along with the downsides highlighted by critics and skeptics:

Cheaper fares, until demand ends the discounts

Current Miami-Dade law requires taxicabs to charge fares set by the county, with meters calculating the costs. Uber and Lyft set their own rates, and they’ve won passengers by undercutting taxi fares. A recent weeknight trip from the Coconut Grove area to South Beach would have cost about $38 under the county’s metered taxi rates but amounted to only $14 using Uber.

But unlike taxis, Uber and Lyft employ “surge” pricing, which allows fares to soar when more customers want rides. On New Year’s Eve, Uber told passengers its fares would be nine times higher than normal. Rides then cost $8.42 mile, double the $4-per-mile cost under the county’s metered rates on a three-mile trip. (Miami-Dade taxis charge $7.20 for the first mile, and $2.40 a mile after that.)

“Our goal is always to meet demand and keep prices affordable for riders,” said Javi Correoso, Uber’s public-affairs manager for Florida. “Prices go up because there’s not enough driver-partners on the road to meet demand at that specific time. The more drivers on the road, the lower the price.”

Rides everywhere, but thinned-out regulations

Uber alone dwarfs Miami-Dade’s taxi fleet, with the company reporting more than 10,000 drivers in their own cars compared to the county’s 2,121 registered cabs and 4,568 licensed drivers. Uber needs a massive roster of freelance drivers in order to provide extensive coverage and quick pick-ups.

Key to that sprawling fleet is ease of recruiting: Would-be drivers with Uber can register online and submit to a digital screening of their driving and criminal backgrounds. Drivers also must provide a mechanic’s inspection certificate for their vehicles.

Miami-Dade’s screening process of for-hire drivers, including taxi operators, constitutes one of the biggest obstacles for Uber and Lyft. The pro-Uber bill up for a vote Tuesday dismantles much of the county’s role in regulating drivers throughout the industry, leaving it to taxi operators and ride-hailing companies to screen their own drivers for driving infractions and criminal offenses.

“Safety has always got to be No. 1,” said Commissioner Daniella Levine Cava, who favors fingerprint checks, which are not part of Bovo’s bill.

The proposed legislation also would scrap the current requirement that taxi drivers undergo county-run training on customer service, including tips on popular tourist attractions and how to treat passengers with courtesy.

On Monday, a group representing taxi and Uber drivers in Miami-Dade wrote the 13-member commission to urge changes to Bovo’s ordinance, including expansion of current cabbie training to ride-hailing drivers.

“If someone was to come into Miami and driver Uber, he won’t know the city,” said Raymond Francois, director of the group, the New Vision Drivers Association of Florida. “They need to keep the training in order to train them not only to know the city, but give them some tools so they can give better service.”

Uber and Lyft argue their apps, which let passengers rate drivers after their rides, serves as the ideal self-regulation system. Drivers who consistently receive low scores should also receive less business, with the worst performers ousted from the ride-hailing network altogether.

Another flashpoint for Tuesday involves passengers in wheelchairs. With spacious trunks, taxis generally have the ability to accommodate wheelchairs, and county rules require 3 percent of a taxi company’s fleet to be fully handicap accessible with lifts, ramps and places to secure a wheelchair. The new rules for Uber and Lyft would not require any of their vehicles to be accessible.

Great tech, but taxis hurting

Miami-Dade’s tourism bureau has been a top advocate of legalizing Uber and Lyft, saying travelers expect to have access to the high-tech taxi alternative when they visit. By offering their service exclusively on smartphone apps, the companies let passengers track the cars coming to pick them up and have the payments made instantly online.

The integrated hailing service also allows Uber to pitch itself as a car-pooling service, with customers able to buy pieces of shared routes with other customers. Alice Bravo, head of Miami-Dade’s transit system, has said she sees “Uber pool” as a potential add-on to the county’s transportation network, with roving ride-hail drivers giving passengers lifts to nearby bus and Metrorail stations.

But the soaring popularity of Uber also has come at the expense of taxis. In Los Angeles, taxi rides are down 30 percent since Uber and Lyft began operating in 2013, according to the Los Angeles Times. Taxi driver Rudy Gonzalez told commissioners earlier this year that his business was even worse than it was when tourism collapsed after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

The proposed Miami-Dade legislation requires taxis to offer the same kind of ride-hailing app that Uber and Lyft do, and reserves street hails to cabs. Bovo said he doesn’t want Miami-Dade to wait for taxis to catch up with modern technology.

“The taxi industry has really locked itself into the mentality that what’s worked for them the past 50 or 60 years needs to stay in place,” he said. “I don’t know of any business model in the history of mankind that doesn’t adjust to realities.”