Ride-hailing Uber ordinance passes first vote in Iowa City

Uber says it will come to Iowa City if changes pass all three readings

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IOWA CITY — The Iowa City Council has voted in support of more lax regulations on ride-hailing companies.

The city ordinance could be the key to bringing increasingly popular companies such as Uber and Lyft to Iowa City.

“If passed in its current form, (the ordinance) allows us to operate in Iowa City, which is something we’re actually really excited to do,” Clay Carroll, Uber senior operations manager for Iowa, said Wednesday.

The council voted unanimously to pass the first of three required readings on new city regulations for transportation network companies. If the amendments take effect, ride-hailing companies would follow different rules than traditional metered taxicabs.

“Uber is everywhere, literally everywhere,” council member Kingsley Botchway said. “This one, to me, is kind of a no-brainer.”

The council also asked staff to explore amendments to city regulations on traditional taxicab companies.

Geoff Fruin, interim city manager, said the proposed ordinance reflected considerable discussion with Uber officials, who have expressed interest in entering the Iowa City market.

Fruin said Uber officials were uninterested in added regulations.

“What we presented to you was really the bottom line of what Uber requires,” Fruin said. “We pushed back on a number of items and ultimately ended up where we did.”

Council member Terry Dickens said he wasn’t opposed to Uber, but said the company’s pushback to city regulations was worrisome.

“I do worry about them dictating to the government and to the city, ‘This is it or we’re not coming.’ That bothers me,” he said.

The biggest difference in rules between traditional taxicabs and ride-hailing companies included in Wednesday’s proposal pertain to driver background checks.

Under the proposed changes, ride-hailing drivers must possess third-party accreditation from the National Association of Professional Background Screeners. Traditional taxicab drivers would continue getting background checks through the Iowa City Police Department.

Other changes proposed Wednesday cater to the ride-hailing model, in which customers booking rides on their smartphone and paying fares digitally.

Officials with the Iowa City Area Chamber of Commerce, Iowa City/Coralville Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, Downtown District and University of Iowa Student Government spoke Wednesday in support of the changes, all citing Uber.

Some area taxicab drivers with companies such as Marco’s Taxicab and Yellow Cab of Iowa City opposed the change Wednesday, arguing they provide an unfair advantage to ride-hailing companies over traditional taxicabs.

Roger Bradley, manager with Yellow Cab, raised concern over crafting regulations to appease Uber, arguing that city rules already allow ride-hailing companies.

“If they really want to come here, they’ll come here,” he said.

City staffers plan to delve into ways of changing regulations on traditional taxicabs to align more closely with the proposed ride-hailing rules.

Potential changes — which would require a separate ordinance amendment — could include no longer requiring 24/7 service or allowing third-party background checks for traditional taxicabs.

Last year’s regulations dated back to 2014, when the city began efforts 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.

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