Iowa City Council vote to loosen regulations for Uber stalls

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IOWA CITY — Amendments working their way through the Iowa City Council docket could be the changes needed to bring ride-sharing services like Uber to Johnson County.

But they will have to wait a few more weeks to reach a vote.

The council on Tuesday voted 4-3, with council members Kingsley Botchway, Terry Dickens and Susan Mims opposed, to defer on the first of three readings to amend the city’s taxicab ordinance to loosen local regulations on ride-sharing companies. The first reading will take place March 23.

Council member Rockne Cole, who recommended the deferral, said his concern was that new council members and interested public had received information about the amendments only days before the meeting.

“I found out about the ordinance on Thursday, I don’t feel like we’ve had enough time to review it,” he said. “I think we need more time.”

Botchway argued the opposite.

“There’s a lot of people interested in hearing about this and I think pulling it from the agenda would be problematic,” he said.

However, several members of the council said the deferral will help them try to find an alternative that would benefit ride-sharing companies and traditional taxicabs equally.

“It needs to be an even playing field,” Dickens said. “If we’re going to do it for Uber we have to do it for the companies that have [already] served the community.”

The amendments proposed would remove city rules that require drivers with companies like Uber or Lyft to register with the city. Taxi drivers would still have to register.

Simon Andrew, assistant to the city manager, said the reason for the amendments is that ride-sharing companies already collect that information, which can be made available to the city if needed. Uber, for example, provides the passenger with a photo and name of the driver, the make, model and license plate number of the vehicle and the projected route.

“The passenger has that information before they even get into the vehicle,” he said.

Other transportation network companies looking to operate in Iowa City also would have to provide that information.

Uber officials said about a year ago, as the council passed taxi regulations requiring drivers to register with the city were being discussed, they would not be coming to Iowa City in light of those requirements.

Leor Reef, Uber spokesperson, said Tuesday he applauded the city on the new amendments, adding that he couldn’t say definitively what Uber’s plans might be if the changes officially take place.

“I think there still is a lot up in the air with the city council and what they’ll decide to do,” he said. “With that said, Iowa City is a market we see to be really great for Uber.”

Some local taxi companies, however, call foul on the recently proposed changes, arguing they unfairly cater to what Uber officials want.

“Let’s start by saying the only thing keeping Uber from entering the Iowa City market is Uber. They have elected to not enter the market under the current regulations,” Yellow Cab manager David Stoddard said in a Monday email to the council. “What we are asking for is a level field to operate.”

Iowa City staff have been working since 2014 to better document and track the community’s taxi companies and drivers following a string of sexual assaults allegedly committed by a taxi driver in the spring of that year.

With little information at the time on taxi drivers and who was working the nights of the assaults, police spent an exhaustive amount of time tracking down a suspect.

Outside of the public safety element, Andrew said having ride-sharing companies in Iowa City would help meet a need in the market, which includes a large student population.

“There is a strong demand at peak times and our peak times are much larger than most communities,” he said.

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