The world’s busiest airport plans to officially legalize Uber X and Lyft pickups by July 1.
But before that happens, expect some vigorous public debate over how the ride-share services are regulated at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. That debate starts Wednesday at a meeting of the Atlanta City Council’s transportation committee.
The proposal has drawn the ire of the taxi industry, which says the ride-share businesses have been operating unregulated and cutting into their business. Uber and Lyft, meanwhile, object to the airport’s proposed requirement for fingerprint-based background checks.
The airport now prohibits ride-share pickups by non-permitted drivers, but the rule is loosely enforced and confusing to many travelers.
As the debate heats up over legalizing and regulating Uber and Lyft, here are some things you should know:
1) Uber has been operating in Atlanta since 2012, while Lyft launched in Atlanta in 2013. Both are based in San Francisco and have the approach of entering cities before regulations exist for their operations, then after gaining a loyal following of customers, negotiating or advocating for a regulatory framework once local or state governments start to look to regulate them.
2) Taxis might be hard to find in some parts of Atlanta, but there are about 1,600 taxi certificates of public necessity and convenience, similar to medallions, for taxis to operate in Atlanta. Hundreds wait in a taxi hold lot to pick up passengers at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, while others wait for rides at hotel stands, at the Georgia World Congress Center or elsewhere around the central business district of Atlanta.
3) Taxi drivers pay $1.50 per pickup at Hartsfield-Jackson, while limo drivers pay $1-$1.50 per pickup. Hartsfield-Jackson officials say the fees help pay for infrastructure at the airport including the taxi hold lot and building, limo waiting area, curbside operations and enforcement. The Atlanta airport proposes to charge $1.50 for each pickup by Uber, Lyft, taxis and limos. Several other airports, including San Francisco, Houston and Denver, charge fees ranging from $1.25 to $4.15 for Uber, Lyft and taxi pickups or drop-offs, according to data from Hartsfield-Jackson.
4) One of the biggest complaints about taxis in Atlanta has been poor customer service and less-than-sparkling cars. For years, taxi driver were required to complete driver training and vehicle inspections by the Atlanta Police Department division of taxicabs and vehicles for hire, but the new Georgia law passed in 2015 that established regulation of Uber and Lyft operations by the state also pre-empted certain city regulations of Uber, Lyft and taxis. With fewer standards for new taxi drivers and less regulation, airport manager Miguel Southwell said some long-time taxi drivers have complained about new taxi drivers who are unfamiliar with roads, don’t have cell phones or don’t speak English.
5) Taxi cabs in Atlanta can be up to 10 years old. The city of Atlanta’s previous requirement limited taxis to up to 8 years old, but with the taxi industry’s struggles as Uber and Lyft have grown in the last few years, the city increased the age limit to 10 years. Now, however, the airport is proposing that taxis that pick up at the airport be no more than 7 years old — the same standard proposed for Uber and Lyft vehicles. Other airports around the country have age limits ranging from five to ten years, according to Hartsfield-Jackson.
6) A key point of contention in the airport’s proposed regulations of “transportation network companies” like Uber and Lyft pickups at the airport is the idea for a requirement for fingerprint-based background checks. Taxi drivers and limo drivers undergo fingerprint-based background checks by the state. Uber and Lyft drivers undergo company background checks that do not require fingerprints.
One issue expected to come up for debate is the airport’s legal authority to require the background checks by the state for a for-hire license. A bill passed by the Georgia legislature, HB 225, that took effect last year regarding for-hire drivers says airports are “authorized to regulate any ride share network service,” transportation referral or taxi service with the same process used for limos. But it also says airports “shall accept a for-hire license endorsement or private background check certification… as adequate evidence of sufficient criminal background investigation and shall not require any fee for any further criminal background check investigation,” according to the law.
7) Uber drivers in the city of Houston undergo fingerprint-based background checks, one of the early regulations for Uber operations passed in the United States. Uber says that has limited how many drivers they can attract in that city.
8) Uber drivers in New York also undergo fingerprint-based background checks. Uber says New York drivers operate differently in that they are mostly full-time professional drivers, even Uber X drivers. Meanwhile, nationally, more than 50 percent of Uber drivers work for Uber less than 10 hours per week. Lyft says 80 percent of its drivers drive 15 hours a week or less. Uber argues that full-time workers are more likely to undergo such screening, while part-time workers who are just driving for Uber to earn some extra cash during their spare time may find it to be too much of a hassle. The company also says more than 50 other U.S. airports do not require fingerprint-based background checks.
9) Backers of fingerprint-based background checks say they uncover criminal records under aliases and are more comprehensive. The city of Houston says its fingerprint-based FBI background checks have captured criminal history of applicants for transportation network company driver’s licenses, who had already been cleared by a commercial criminal background check. The charges include murder, assault, battery, sexual assault, indecent exposure, fraud, prostitution DWI/DUI, aggravated robbery and reckless driving, according to the city of Houston.
Uber argues that fingerprint-based background checks are discriminatory because they may not be updated with final records for arrests and may capture criminal charges that did not lead to a conviction. The company also argues that its checks are comprehensive, including in-person visits to courthouses to pull records.
Uber also contends its app allows safety features like its driver ratings, ride tracking and ability to share trip details with friends or family and the no-cash system.
10) Uber has encountered challenges overseas, including criminal charges against Uber executives in France for charges including illicit storage of personal data and violating requirements for professional licenses for drivers and a ban of its Uber X-like UberPop service, bans in Spain and Italy.
11) Taxi companies like Atlanta Checker Cab argue that they also have smartphone apps to offer that convenience to passengers.
However,Uber and Lyft have one key advantage over the fragmented taxi industry. Taxi companies tend to be local operations in a city rather than national brands. Because a large portion of the taxi customer base in a city like Atlanta is out-of-towners, visitors are often unfamiliar with what taxi companies operate in town and how to contact them. In areas where you can’t easily flag down a taxi, Uber and Lyft offer nationally-known brands and a smartphone app that works in any city where they operate.
12) Atlanta taxi drivers, Uber drivers and Lyft drivers are typically independent contractors.
13) Ever wonder who exactly these Uber drivers are? Here’s some data from a 2014 Benenson Strategy Group survey for Uber:
-About 19 percent of Uber drivers are aged 18-29, 30 percent are aged 30-39, 26 percent are 40-49 and 24 percent are 50 or older. About 86 percent are male.
-About 49 percent of Uber drivers have a full-time job. -About 7 percent are students, 2 percent are stay-at-home parents, 3 percent are retired, and 8 percent are unemployed. About 50 percent are married, and 46 percent have children.
-About 30 percent worked in white-collar professional or managerial jobs before driving for Uber, while about 26 percent worked in the service sector and 14 percent were blue-collar workers.
-Nearly half of Uber drivers have a college degree or advanced degree. About 24 percent have an associate’s degree or went to trade school. And 28 percent have no college degree.
14) The Certificates of Public Necessity and Convenience that allow taxi drivers to operate have been valued at as high as $80,000, but industry observers believe they may now be worth less than $20,000. CPNCs are owned in large batches by a small number of companies. Taxi drivers lease the CPNC or the CPNC and vehicle, sometimes for several hundred dollars a month, for the right to drive a taxi.
Taxi drivers are required to hold CPNCs, or medallions, in order to operate in Atlanta. The system was developed in the 1980s by former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson, in an effort to limit the number of cabs and impose regulations. Atlanta Checker Cab president Rick Hewatt said that also encouraged companies to invest in the taxi industry to provide the service by ensuring they gained assets that retained value in return for buying vehicles and other investments.
Jackson back in 1980 was trying to address what might sound like a familiar issue:
“Cabbies can’t make any money and their cabs get run-down and that reflects badly on Atlanta,” he said some 35 years ago, before putting in place a regulatory system aimed at fixing the problem.
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