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Does Rochester really need Uber? 

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Rochester cab drivers are bracing for what they say may be the fight of their livelihoods, as the Uber revolution prepares to march on Upstate New York. State lawmakers are talking about bringing ride sharing to Upstate and how to do it.

Uber is a tech-based transportation service that operates in more than 400 cities worldwide, including New York City. Customers use Uber's mobile app on their smartphones to book rides, and drivers pick them up using their own vehicle. The company is estimated to be worth more than $60 billion.

Where Uber and its supporters see long-overdue innovation in an industry that had stagnated, the company's critics see an under-regulated upstart, with gobs of money and political muscle, poised to take jobs away from taxi drivers. And unlike most Uber drivers, these critics say, taxi drivers are in large part full-time professionals with families to support.

Calls to bring ride sharing Upstate are coming from many segments of the community, including several state, regional, and local politicians, as well as some area clergy members and business groups. But if it happens, it won't be overnight. State Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle says that much more legwork has to be done before any legislation can be voted on, and that the Legislature may not get to it this session, which ends in June.

Many people, including some in the taxi industry, say that cab drivers and cab companies helped create an opening for ride sharing because cab service isn't great, overall. The industry has essentially had a monopoly on on-demand ride sharing, critics say, and acts like it. The drivers can be cranky, the service unreliable, and the cars are often old, dirty, or broken, they say.

click to enlarge Cab drivers say that Uber will take their jobs. - PHOTO BY MARK CHAMBERLIN
  • PHOTO BY MARK CHAMBERLIN
  • Cab drivers say that Uber will take their jobs.

"The taxi industry as a whole has not really invested a lot in better automobiles over the years," says Graham Hodges, a professor at Colgate University. "So Uber comes along with nice cars, bottles of water, flowers, and things like that, and it looks great to customers."

Hodges is a former New York City cab driver who wrote the book, "Taxi! A Cultural History of the New York City Cabdriver."

In Rochester, though, the push for ride sharing doesn't seem to be about the quality of the city's taxi service. It's about the jobs, many politicians say, and about providing transportation alternatives, particularly for millennials. Young people travel to other cities, use Uber or another ride-sharing service, and then wonder why they can't have it here.

"Those college students want options and ways to get to and from different venues, and we should be a community that gives it to them," says Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren. "I think that we would be shortsighted as a community to not offer some other options for transportation."

Although the state legislation would likely be about ride sharing in general and wouldn't single out Uber, the company is clearly the leviathan keeping many Upstate cab drivers awake at night. And the industry is fighting back.

The New York Taxi Workers Alliance has teamed up with union reps in Rochester, taxi drivers, and the Rochester Taxi Drivers Association to let politicians and the public know that they believe their livelihoods are at stake. They held a rally outside City Hall last month, and they're speaking to members of City Council who, they hope, will help influence state representatives in their favor.

"They're trying to kill our businesses," says Adne Alemu, who has been a Rochester cab driver for 18 years. "We have to feed our families."

But it's not just about jobs, the cab drivers say. Rochester taxi drivers have a slew of regulations, spelled out in the city's municipal code, which they must follow. So why, they ask, should Uber be held to a lesser standard? And they say that Uber doesn't do enough to ensure riders' safety; it opposes fingerprint checks for potential drivers, for example,

"There's a reason we make teachers do this," says Zubin Soleimany, policy coordinator for the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. "They do keep people out."

Uber general manager Josh Mohrer says that fingerprint checks are discriminatory, particularly against minorities and people of low income, because they're based on arrests, not convictions. Uber's background checks, which include screenings through national, state, and local databases, are thorough, he says. (Uber and Lyft suspended service in Austin, Texas, this week because of additional regulations imposed on the companies, including driver fingerprinting. The regulations were approved by voters.)

"Safety does not begin and end with a background check," Mohrer says. "Our technology makes it possible to focus on safety for riders and drivers before, during, and after every trip in ways that have never been possible before."

And Uber wants a full regulatory framework in Upstate New York, he says, that includes insurance requirements, price transparency, and consumer protection.

Morelle says that he understands the cab drivers' point about a level playing field; you shouldn't have special rules for Uber, he says. But the cab drivers have to realize that they can't wish Uber out of existence, he says.

"You're not going to stop this," Morelle says. "This is like the people who didn't like talking motion pictures. People also didn't like automobiles. They'd say, 'Well, they can't do that. That's never going to catch on.' That sort of old-world thinking doesn't work well in this new environment. We're going to have to continue to adjust public policy to recognize it."

The answer may be to create a statewide framework governing taxis and taxi drivers as well as ride-sharing companies, Morelle says, to replace the patchwork of regulations currently in place across the state.

click to enlarge Local cab drivers rallied against Uber at City Hall last month. - PHOTO BY MARK CHAMBERLIN
  • PHOTO BY MARK CHAMBERLIN
  • Local cab drivers rallied against Uber at City Hall last month.

"You can't argue that I can't let someone into an industry because it's never been that way," he says. "By the same token, the new industry can't come in and say, 'Well, we don't want to abide by any of the rules, because we're new.' I just think we have to find an opportunity to create a single public policy around this."

Compelling points exist on both sides of the Uber argument, which are summarized below using each party's point of view.

UBER: YES

Of course, bring Uber here. The fares are usually cheaper, except maybe during times of peak demand, and you don't have to carry cash, because Uber has your credit card information on file. You can choose your car and your driver, and each rates the other afterward, so Uber gets instant feedback, which the company says is a major safety feature. And no tip!

In Rochester, unless you're at a hotel or the airport, you're probably not going to step outside and find a cab waiting for you; this isn't New York City. And Uber can send the nearest driver to your pickup location, so it's usually faster than a cab.

Best of all, you can track the car's arrival on the app, so no more waiting outside in the rain or those character-building Rochester winters.

And it's not like there's a menu of transportation options to choose from in the city or county; no bike share or light rail.

With New York's aging population and the cost of car ownership, Morelle says that he believes that people might use Uber to save money.

Mayor Warren says that Rochester is a city that encourages free enterprise, and Uber says it will create more than 1,000 jobs in Rochester its first year. You can become a driver almost instantly and work when, where, and for however long you choose.

"People will work 40 hours a week like a full-time job, or they might just work 10 hours a week on the side, or they may just work as a one-time thing to try to earn money to pay for an unexpected bill, or a purchase that they're looking to make, or a vacation," Mohrer says. "You can really start and stop anytime. There's no commitment."

The stuff about taking jobs away from cab drivers is overblown, Mohrer says. He says, and Warren agrees, that what services such as Uber actually do is generate more customers for everyone. Because Uber is inexpensive and easy, people use ride sharing who never did before. And that's good for the environment.

"Ultimately, the less people are dependent on their cars, the more they are going to use all sorts of services," Mohrer says, including public transit. "I think this is going to be more about leaving the car in their driveway," he says.

Uber may also help curb drunk driving. A study from Temple University found that cities with Uber have 3.6 percent to 5.6 percent fewer drunk driving deaths than cities without ride sharing. A Newsweek story speculates that if ride sharing were available nationwide, it would save billions of dollars and hundreds of lives annually, citing that same Temple study.

The state will work on any issues around insurance and background checks, Morelle says, emphasizing that the checks should be the same for ride-sharing drivers as they are for taxi drivers.

"This is the thing," he says, "we're not going to relax health and safety regulations in order to expedite commerce."

And if for some reason, the state permits ride sharing without regulations comparable to what the City of Rochester imposes on taxi drivers, then city government can take matters into its own hands.

"The city would have to look at its policy to see if we're discriminating against taxi drivers and should we give them the ability to service their clients in a different way," Warren says.

The competition from ride-sharing companies is forcing the taxi industry to finally up its game. Many local taxi drivers and union reps say that they know that an app is the future.

At least one local company is already on board. Park Avenue Taxi's app, TaxiCaller, appears to function much like Uber's app. You can see which vehicles are near you and how many people they can hold, and then arrange pickup with a couple of touches of the screen.

"I don't think anybody's going to be calling a taxi company on the phone in 10 years," says Soleimany, of the Taxi Workers Alliance.

UBER: NO

Whoa, whoa, whoa: you can hardly call driving for Uber a "job," Soleimany says. Sixty-nine percent of Uber drivers have other full- or part-time work, and half average fewer than 10 hours a week behind the wheel.

Most Rochester taxi drivers, though, are full-time professionals supporting families on net pay of $12 to $15 an hour. What about protecting the jobs of the hundreds of cabbies who've been driving Rochester's streets for years, if not decades?

It's true that not a lot of hard data is available yet, but taxi trips in New York City decreased by approximately 8 percent from 2012 to 2014, according to an article in The Atlantic; the timing is coincidental with the onset of Uber. And Gizmondo and other media outfits blame the bankruptcy of San Francisco's largest taxi company, Yellow Cab, at least in part on Uber and Lyft.

If taxi drivers are feeling the effects in those cities, critics say, what chance does a Rochester cab driver have if Uber rolls in? Monroe County's population is flat, and it certainly can't compete with New York City or San Francisco in terms of tourism. All ride share would do is split the pie into smaller pieces, critics say, so no one would be able to make a living.

"Who will get a full-time job?" asks Melkie Demissie, a Rochester cab driver and an owner of Park Avenue Taxi. "If they're out of a job, the city has to be prepared to support these people, whether you call it food stamps, whether you call it Medicaid. It will have a lot of impact and expenses on consumers as a whole, because if I am not able to support myself, you will support me."

click to enlarge Melkie Demissie, a Rochester cab driver and owner of Park Avenue Taxi. - PHOTO BY MARK CHAMBERLIN
  • PHOTO BY MARK CHAMBERLIN
  • Melkie Demissie, a Rochester cab driver and owner of Park Avenue Taxi.

Driving a taxi is also one of the few jobs that an immigrant who isn't proficient in English or who lacks specialized skills can get and actually earn a decent salary.

Earnings estimates you see from Uber don't include the cost of the wear and tear on your car, maintenance, gas, and other expenses. That's all coming out of the driver's pocket.

The regulations covering cabs and cab drivers in the city code are stringent, governing everything from the lettering on the cars to the dress and behavior of the drivers: no eating, drinking, or smoking while driving.

The cabs must be inspected twice a year, and the drivers are vetted by the Rochester Police Department. And all cab drivers must come in annually for additional training from the RPD and VisitRochester. The extent of Uber's driver training, on the other hand, seems to be a short instructional video.

VisitRochester covers the hospitality end of the taxi drivers' training, which includes attitude and customer service.

"We see the taxicab drivers as very important to the visitor experience," says Greg LaDuca, senior director of membership and visitor services for VisitRochester. The driver helps form a visitor's first impression of the city, he says.

"There needs to be control over this group of workers," says Shirley Sobczak of Workers United and the Rochester Taxi Drivers Association. "They're all great guys and women. But like anything that serves the public, there has to be controls."

"For the safety of the people in our community and for the safety of our drivers, and for the fact that our drivers pay all these fees and insurances and they're under rules and regulations, why should other people come in and be able to just be pirates?" she says.

Colgate University's Hodges says that the regulations imposed on taxi drivers have proved valuable to cities, customers, and drivers.

"They not only guarantee a set fare, a good vehicle, but they also protect the drivers by keeping out excess competition," he says, by limiting the number of cabs.

With ride-sharing companies, he says, the customers have no idea who is up front or their skill level.

"Uber's desire to avoid regulations doesn't really stand up to scrutiny because they're basically doing the same tasks as the taxi companies but trying to get around the regulations," Hodges says. "It casualizes a job that is very much a public utility."

Zubin Soleimany, of the New York Taxi Workers Alliance, says that the goal right now is to keep educating the community about ride sharing and its potential effect on cab drivers and to keep broadening the unions' and cab drivers' coalition of supporters.

Another goal is to create a single app that all Rochester cab drivers can operate off of, which would improve the taxi experience for riders and provide additional work to full-time professionals, he says.

"In a city that's sort of suffered the economic losses that this place has, that would be real job growth," Soleimany says, "not 1,000 college students working a couple of hours here and there."

Includes reporting by Jeremy Moule.

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