Drivers for traditional cab companies and the new ride-sharing Uber service sparred with one another Wednesday night — agreeing only that Kansas City regulations trail these fast-changing, tech-driven times.
And Havis Wright, who has been a passenger in both cabs and Uber, told Kansas City officials they need to confront these issues urgently.
“As a patron and citizen,” he said, “I want to know I’m in the backseat of a vehicle that’s operating safely and legally.”
The testimony came as the City Council wrestles with two thorny issues: how to accommodate new ride-sharing services like Lyft and Uber while ensuring public safety; and how to deal with a contract that gives Yellow Cab all the business from prominent Kansas City hotels, to the exclusion of minority and women-owned cab companies.
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“I don’t mind competition,” said former City Councilman Terry Riley, who now represents minority cab companies battling Yellow Cab’s exclusive contract. “All we’re asking is to give a fair shake to our small cab companies.”
On Oct. 2, the council directed the city manager to provide guidance within 60 days on the best way to foster a diverse, vibrant and competitive taxi industry. But more than two months later, City Manager Troy Schulte said he’s still researching best practices from other cities on how to handle inspections, driver background checks, insurance and exclusive contracts.
Schulte told the audience of about 70 people Wednesday night in a hearing held at the Southeast Community Center that he now hopes to make a report by the end of January. He admitted at the end of the meeting that some of the issues are as “intractable as ever.”
Many in Wednesday’s audience were Uber drivers — typically drivers of personal vehicles who connect with riders through a smartphone app — who argued that they often provide better customer service at a cheaper price than traditional cabs. Some complained that Kansas City makes it difficult, time consuming and expensive to comply with its regulations, while other cities are much more adaptable.
“I don’t drive a cab,” said Cheri Holt, who has been driving for Uber since September. “People are sick of cabs.”
She said she’s been hassled by police and gets the feeling from taxicab companies and the city that “You didn’t grease the right palm.”
Kim Cartwright, who drives for Yellow Cab, said he welcomes competition from Uber but had a message for its drivers. “If you’re going to do the job, do it legally, like we are.”
Bill George, chief executive of Kansas City Transportation Group, which operates Yellow Cab, said Uber and Lyft are no different than cab companies and that the same rules should apply to everyone. He also defended his exclusive contract as a private agreement with major hotels in downtown, Crown Center and the Plaza that the city has no authority to stop.
But Lora McDonald, executive director of MORE2 (Metro Organization for Racial and Economic Equity), said the contract is blatantly discriminatory to minority cab companies and that Miami banned a similar arrangement. She said her group’s congregations and constituents are prepared to put pressure on the participating hotels if necessary to end the practice.
“We’re willing,” she said, “to boycott.”