A motion to adopt a proposed ordinance regulating rideshare services such as Uber and Lyft in Evanston failed to even get a “second” at the Jan. 5 Human Services Committee, except for purposes of discussion. The proposed ordinance, modeled closely on a similar ordinance passed by Chicago recently and following the taxicab regulation concept, failed to interest a clearly skeptical Council.
A very similar, if not identical ordinance, appeared before the same Committee and received virtually the same reception in September 2014. At that time, the Committee indicated a preference for taking a different path from Chicago and other communities across the country. That preference remained, loud and clear, on Jan. 5.
“Well, we may have to reinvent the wheel,” said Alderman Jane Grover, 7th Ward.
Alderman Coleen Burrus, 9th Ward, offered another alternative: “Why do we have to do anything? I see [rideshare companies] as entrepreneurial and innovative.”
City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz said that currently, rideshare operations in the City of Evanston are illegal, and if Council does nothing to address the legality of rideshares then eventually the City would be forced to begin enforcing the current ordinances by ticketing Uber and other rideshare drivers.
“Why is it illegal?” asked Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward.
Because it is, was Mr. Bobkiewicz’s response. “Right now, we have a law that regulates taxis,” he said. Under that law, he said, taxis without a City of Evanston medallion cannot pick up riders in Evanston. Even taxis from outside Evanston called by residents cannot legally come to Evanston to pick up riders.
“It’s not a taxi,” responded Ald. Rainey. “You don’t use a telephone to call them. We need to take the lead here” and write an ordinance that looks forward and not backward, she said.
The Chicago ordinance and proposed Evanston ordinance require regulations similar to those placed on taxis. The difference is that the fees would be paid by the company, such as Uber, rather than by the individual drivers. Evanston taxi drivers pay a $250 annual fee, said City attorney Grant Farrar. With 140 taxis in town, the City bills $35,000 per year. Under the proposed ordinance, rideshares would pay annual license fees of $25,000 for busier services, $10,000 for less busy services. “As a matter of policy, we took the same fees as Chicago,” said Mr. Farrar, though cities such as Austin, Texas, and Springfield, Illinois, charge only $500. Chicago has about 2.7 million residents, compared to Evanston’s 75,000.
“We’re looking for direction,” said Mr. Bobkiewicz.
Ald. Grover said she viewed Uber drivers as “micro-entrepreneurs.” When it comes to regulating them, “I’m just not there yet,” she said. She indicated that a better path might be to revise the taxi ordinances to make it less regulatory and include rideshare drivers rather than creating an entirely new regulatory scheme to take in the rideshares. She had made a similar suggestion in September.
Repeatedly, aldermen on the Human Services Committee asked questions about taxi regulation and not about how to regulate rideshares. “It would be interesting to see how we charge taxis,” said Alderman Peter Braithwaite, 2nd Ward. Alderman Delores Holmes, 5th Ward, asked how the insurance industry approached rideshare drivers, suggesting an answer might be found there.
“What’s important here is there was some buy-in [from Uber and Lyft] on the Chicago ordinance,” said Mr. Farrar. “Courts have all concluded that this is not a cab,” he added. But he argued that rideshares should be regulated in some way because they use public streets. If not, he said, it is possible that a rider injured during an Uber ride could “sue the City, like someone does every day.”
“Why would they do that?” asked Ald. Rainey.
It is clear the Human Services Committee members clearly were seeking a more innovative, forward-looking proposal from staff.
Or, as Ald. Burrus proposed, to do nothing. “I am concerned about a slippery slope toward over-regulation,” she said, citing past Council efforts to regulate lemonade stands and the sale of Girl Scout cookies. “What about car poolers? Are we going to regulate them? Then we’re sort of regulating everyone. We’re starting to regulate too much. Is somebody going to sue the City because we didn’t regulate car pools?”
The Committee voted to hold the matter pending answers to questions about taxi regulation and probable revision of the proposed annual fees. It will return at the Jan. 26 City Council meeting.