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St. Louis requires cabbies to enter digital age

The
St. Louis Metropolitan Taxicab Commission (MTC) is joining other cities embracing the
digital age for hailing a cab.

On Sept. 18, the St. Louis MTC approved a requirement for all cab
drivers to link to one smartphone app in order to help riders locate the closest taxi.

 

In
February, Chicago became the first city to require all of its 12,700 cab
drivers to link to a universal smartphone app service. At the time, officials
said it was imposed so cab services could compete with private ride-sharing
companies such as Uber and Lyft.

 

The
St. Louis MTC said its push for a singular smartphone app is not another effort
to push companies like Uber out of the market. But the St. Louis MTC is seeking
legal action against Uber in an effort to make the company comply with the same
regulations imposed on taxicab drivers.

 

An
Uber spokesperson declined to comment about the required smartphone app for cab
drivers as well as the pending litigation.

 

“Uber
expands the transportation ecosystem in St. Louis by offering additional
options for consumers and flexible earning opportunities for drivers across the
city,” the Uber spokesperson said.

 

Ron
Klein, executive director of the St. Louis MTC, said the commission has looked to
Chicago as well as Washington, D.C., Houston and Austin for guidance on
choosing the best app for cab drivers and riders.

 

“Traditional
ways like dialing the phone, street hailing, cab stands are becoming less
important to today’s passengers,” Klein said. “Data reveals that taxi companies
still service over 50 percent of their customers by these means. However, it’s
not a secret that a large swath of the population is phasing out traditional
landlines and cellular companies are phasing out flip phones.”

 

The
New York City Taxi-Limousine Commission (NYC-TLC) regulates more than 50,000
vehicles and 100,000 drivers but decided against imposing a universal app.

 

“New
York City didn’t go the route of an official app,” said Allan Fromberg, deputy
commissioner for public affairs of the NYC-TLC. “We did, however, embrace the
innovation of apps and wanted to make the option available to the riding
public. We created a package of rules that held app-dispatched drivers and
vehicles to the same high standards to which we hold all our licensees,
ensuring that these operators are fully accountable, provide price transparency
and other consumer protections, and regularly submit trip data.”

 

Klein
said within the St. Louis metropolitan region, 10 out of 13 of the on-call taxi
companies have their own app.

 

“That’s
too many,” Klein said. “In focus group discussions, it was determined that the
occasional user of taxis don’t have a preferred company. They want the closest
taxi.”

 

Klein
said he originally hoped to have the app in place by Dec. 31, 2016, for New
Year’s Eve revelers.

 
       

“It’s
not going to happen,” Klein said. “There are some challenges that accompany
this move. There are data ownership and customer privacy issues.”

 

The
requirement of cab drivers to use the universal app comes in the midst of the
MTC being at odds with Transportation Network Companies (TNC) regarding other regulatory
issues.

 

Lyft
briefly operated in the city in 2014. The MTC filed and won an injunction
against the company, prohibiting its operations because it was not following
MTC regulations. Uber has been operating in the city since September 2015. The
MTC filed a lawsuit against Uber, alleging its drivers have not secured special
MTC licenses and chauffer’s licenses, and have not provided fingerprints for
background checks.

 

Klein
declined to discuss specifics of the litigation and Uber’s current operations. Klein
did address past charges that the MTC has tried to halt TNCs in general from
operating in the metropolitan St. Louis region.

 

“It
is widely reported among the media that the MTC is battling to keep TNCs from
operating in this community as a way to protect the taxi companies,” Klein
said. “That is a complete falsehood. The state legislature put provisions in
the law when they created the MTC, namely fingerprinting and chauffeur’s licenses
as a mandate. Only the legislature can change this. We have created a category
in our code to allow these companies to operate here; they, however, contain
the state law mandates. The two big guys won’t agree to these provisions. That
is a business decision on their part.”

 

At
least 28 states and Washington, D.C., have some regulations for TNCs, according
to a February 2016 report from the National Conference of State Legislatures. Most
regulations involve standardized insurance requirements; criminal and driving
background checks for drivers; standards for vehicle safety inspections; proper
communication of fares; operation at airports; and restricting the hailing of
TNCs from the street.

 

House
Bill 2030, which would have imposed statewide regulations in Missouri, passed in
the House during the 2016 legislative session but failed to make it out of a
Senate committee.

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