Yael T. Abouhalkah

May 9, 2014

Uber kicks off KC service with Jamaal Charles in the back seat, but Mayor Sly James is not amused

Uber has joined Lyft in offering rides to people who want to get around Kansas City. And both companies are joined at the hip in another way: They are really irritating Mayor Sly James, the City Council and Yellow Cab officials.

Uber has joined Lyft in offering rides to people

who will pay to be taken to their destinations around Kansas City.

Uber announced that its first customer was Chiefs running back Jamaal Charles, who “helped us kick off the launch as our Rider Zero, enjoying the first uberX ride this morning. Because even Jamaal knows, nothing beats a reliable, comfortable ride to practice — at an Uber-awesome price.”

But both companies are joined at the hip in another way: They are really irritating Mayor Sly James, the City Council and Yellow Cab officials.

James spent part of Friday and the weekend engaged in Twitter discussion/debate with supporters of the two firms. Essentially, the mayor is upset neither company complies with livery laws regulating hired-for transportation in the city.

Here is the mayor’s quote he sent to me over the weekend:

“I welcome both and all as long as they are compliant. Uber has at least started the process. Not yet compliant. I use Uber when out. No prob.”

Joni Wickham, spokeswoman for the mayor’s office, said Friday evening that Uber — which had been in talks with city officials about coming to KC — surprised city officials when it began operating Friday.

City spokesman Chris Hernandez said Uber is “not in compliance” with city rules yet. “That is disappointing,” he said, a thought echoed by Wickham.

And City Manager Troy Schulte said, “Unlike Lyft they had been in talks with us about complying with our livery standards. They are going in now w/no agreement.”

James a few weeks ago initiated the debate over ride-sharing with a few tweets aimed at Lyft, which at the time was the new kid in town for ride sharing.

Then, this week, the

mayor got a bit more testy in a blog

titled, “Hit the brakes and get the facts.”

Finally, on Thursday,

the mayor led a charge to crack down hard on Lyft

, trying to make it even clearer it was operating illegally.

Wow, what did Lyft and Uber do to get so many powerful elected officials so unhappy in Kansas City — especially a mayor who’s known for embracing change?

Primarily, the companies have tried to get around city rules on who can provide paid-for rides in the city.

Lyft and Uber have not done a good job here of working with city officials to get up in running.

That’s really angered a lot of people over something that, at its heart, ought to be good for providing more competition for cab companies and better transit options for Kansas Citians, especially young people.

Indeed, the rift has garnered a fair amount of attention with people who are on social media.

Not surprisingly, many are taking Lyft’s and Uber’s side of the argument, which is they are hip and happening companies that ought to be welcomed in a hip and happening city that Kansas City claims to be.

Lyft and Uber have their on-street supporters elsewhere (such as in Omaha,

as this well-done column points out

), but has run into trouble with city officials in other cities, too.

Lyft specifically has tried to soothe the fears of riders and city officials by pointing to the drivers’ background checks and car inspections it does to protect passengers.

None of that is good enough for James and others who — correctly enough — point out the city has rules governing this kind of company.

In a less litigious world, the city, Lyft and Uber might be able to sit down and work things out. And that still might happen.

But the arrival of Lyft and Uber in Kansas City also has given James and City Hall the opportunity to take a fresh look at its regulations, to see if they are truly serving the public in 2014.

Or, do they need to be changed?

On Thursday, Kansas City doubled down on the current rules and made them tougher.

So this contest is not going well for Lyft or Uber — or its potential customers here.

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