JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Depending on who you talk to, ride-hailing (or ridesharing) is the next essential technology for urban and suburban areas. Just download an app, call for a ride, and a certified, nearby Uber driver will pick you up and take you to the location of their choice.
However, Missouri and its two largest metro areas of St. Louis and Kansas City, question whether or not companies like Uber and Lyft are regulated enough given what many perceive as their barebones approach to certifying their drivers. Bills introduced in March by Rep. Kirk Mathews, R-Pacific, and Sen. Bob Onder, R-St. Charles, would have established a regulatory framework. Although Mathews’ bill got out of the House in April with a 115-34 vote, neither bill made headway in the Senate.
Now, the question is what will ride-hailing companies do in Missouri in the future?
Lauren Altmin, a spokeswoman for Uber, says the plan is to continue trying at the state level to push for comprehensive legislation that makes both state leaders and ridesharing companies happy as Uber has in other places around the world. She believes it’s important for legislators to focus on the possible jobs created by a company like Uber.
“The most important thing is that this will promote growth and economic opportunity,” Altmin said. “We have worked with legislators to create statewide legislation that accounts for that. In many cities, states and countries, we work with legislators and compromise. At the end of the day, a regulatory environment that promotes growth and opportunity is the best way to see it exist.”
Altmin added that Uber currently had few specifics about possible language for a future changes to legislation.
Mathews says he is ready to refile the bill as it is written in the House.
“That’s certainly our plan,” he said.
It will call for transportation network companies (TNC) (the preferred bureaucratic nomenclature for ride-hailing companies) to mandate their drivers or the company have car insurance for each car, performed criminal background checks on driver applicants, and adhere to a zero tolerance drug and alcohol policy.
It also would have opened pathways for Uber to begin operating in other cities, including Joplin and St. Joseph. Uber currently only operates in St. Louis, Kansas City and Columbia. Springfield has also expressed its interest in attracting Uber to the city.
However, the bill also would have allowed Uber or other ride-hailing companies to circumvent local ordinances if they so desired, giving them the ability to choose to follow standards in the bill or existing municipal regulations roughly a year after both Kansas City and Columbia heightened their own regulations.
Those who want tougher regulations, like Rep. John Rizzo, D-Kansas City, would like those rules to reflect what many taxicab companies adhere to, especially when it comes to background checks for drivers. Uber’s current background check looks back seven years at county and federal courthouses as well as a multi-state crime database, while also investigating the driver’s motor vehicle records, performing a Social Security trace, and seeing if the prospective driver is on the National Sex Offender Registry.
Rizzo and others have called for fingerprint background checks done by the FBI – in part to delegate an outside agency to task and because they are thought to be more rigorous.
“Whatever legislation that is introduced needs to have the proper background checks that have been used for years,” Rizzo said.
However, there’s a lot of murkiness over whether or not those enhanced background checks are all that enhanced and actually create a safe environment for passengers – though others call it a “gold standard” of background checks. On the other hand, San Francisco District Attorney George Gascon called Uber’s background checks “worthless” when filing a consumer protection lawsuit against Uber in December 2014.
Representatives from Uber have consistently said that taxicab commissions have those rules to enforce a monopoly and have rejected fingerprint background checks as an unnecessary burden. In fact, Uber and Lyft displayed their opposition to such checks when they suddenly ceased all business in Austin, Texas in May when a ballot measure failed to overturn an Austin ordinance mandating TNCs fingerprint their drivers. It happened in just a matter of days, leaving many Uber and Lyft drivers out of work.
Uber has also clashed with the St. Louis Taxicab Commission in similarly dramatic fashion. When the STLTC voted to mandate fingerprint background checks for TNCs, Uber started service in the city and filed a federal lawsuit against the commission for violating the antitrust act. The commission filed a counter suit against Uber a month later for unlawful operation.
However, Altmin still says the company desires to make inroads in Missouri and get their plans passed both to open up economic development by providing jobs and for public safety, stating that Uber and Lyft cut down on DUIs. Numbers from Austin seem to corroborate that notion. Mathews says the economic opportunities are also too difficult to pass up.
“It creates opportunity like very few opportunities come along for people to create part-time business to supplement their income,” he said, adding that a friend of his from church had just put out a notice looking to make some extra cash. “I also think it brings us in line with nearly 30 other states that have passed legislation similar to what my legislation was like. It is the direction the transportation industry is clearly moving, and I think people look at Missouri as if we’re a little bit backwards and they can’t utilize Uber or Lyft.”
Regardless of the exact language of any possible future legislation, Uber, Lyft and government will likely contend against one another, in what has become one of the starkest examples of regulation across the country.
UPDATED – 8:36 a.m., July 13: A previous version said that neither Onder’s bill nor Mathews’ made any progress, but the story has been edited to say neither made any progress in the Senate. Mathews’ bill passed through the House.