COLUMBIA — The online taxi service Uber has begun advertising in Columbia for drivers as it looks to expand, and existing taxi companies and city regulators are taking note.
Uber provides a smartphone app that uses the GPS on phones to detect a passenger's location and connect them with the nearest available Uber driver. A driver's name and car details appear in the app, and you can message or call if you need a ride, according to Uber.
"You don't need cash when you ride with Uber. Once you arrive at your destination, your fare is automatically charged to your credit card on file," according to its website.
In an email response to Uber's plans in the Columbia market, spokeswoman Lauren Altmin replied that the business was "exploring expansion in a number of cities across the country. Residents across Missouri have been opening the Uber app and asking us to come their towns and we look forward to exploring opportunities."
As it's expanded around the country, Uber and its lower-cost arm UberX have encountered legal questions including whether they should be regulated as taxi services and subject to insurance, background checks of drivers and other requirements.
Cities such as Berlin and Seoul have banned the company from operating, and Uber has been fined $95,000 by the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission for illegal taxi operation. More recently, Uber has been involved in protracted negotiations with the Metropolitan Taxicab Commission to enter the St. Louis market.
Altmin on Thursday said Uber was not yet operating in St. Louis but hopes the talks with the taxi commission would "ensure access to expanded transportation options for residents of the city."
Janice Finley, who handles taxi and other business licenses for the Columbia Finance Department, said city representatives have not been contacted by Uber to the best of her knowledge.
“If you’re transporting people from point A to point B and charging them for the seat and that’s your primary job, then you’re considered a taxi service. You’d have to comply with all the regulations,” she said.
Finley also said a commercial car service in Columbia would need an office within the city limits and a telephone number.
If Uber began operating in Columbia without permission from the city authorities, as it has in several other cities, "we would work with law enforcement to ensure compliance," she said
Angie Nickerson of Taxi Terry's said Uber has worked around safety and insurance regulations elsewhere that are required of traditional taxi companies.
“This is not like picking someone up on the way to Walmart," Nickerson said. "They’re providing the same service as a normal taxi company but exploiting the loopholes in the law.”
David Gilstrap, owner of Dave’s Car Service, welcomed the possible arrival of Uber to the Columbia market.
“A complete overhaul and revamp of this city’s taxi business is long overdue,” he said. “I believe Uber is a first-class operation. This country is full of innovation, and this is a step in taking the transportation industry forward.”
Ray Mundy, director of the Center for Transportation Studies at the University of Missouri at St. Louis, said Uber has a "very smart app, which provides wonderful service. But they’re pretty similar to a transportation broker or a dispatch company.”
He also drew attention to Uber’s variable pricing policies. “If it’s a football night in Columbia, UberX might charge eight or nine times the usual price,” he said. He advised Columbia regulators to be careful and go slow if Uber arrives.
"It’s not old-fashioned to ask Uber to follow the rule of the land,” he said.
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