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One Florida county works to find compromise between taxis and Uber (+video)

Commissioners in Broward County, Fla. have voted to craft legislation that both Uber and incumbent cab companies can work with.

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    The Uber application displays cars available for a pick up at 100 Centre St on a cell phone in New York in this March 18, 2015 photo. More cities and counties across the US and the globe are working to find compromise regulations between the popular ride-hailing service and incumbent taxi companies.
    Mary Altaffer/AP Photo/File
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Call it a small but significant step forward for the sharing economy.

In Broward County, Fla., where Uber suspended operations less than two weeks ago, a majority of commissioners said on Wednesday they support laws that would let app-based ride-hailing services largely self-regulate, and voted to draft “an Uber-friendly law” for a September ballot, the Sun Sentinel reports. They also recommended policies that sought to protect the local cab industry.

“I think we really need to get to the same place and give people back the option to their own transportation on their own,” Broward County Commissioner Chip LaMarca told WSVN news in Miami/Fort Lauderdale. “I don't think that's our business.”

The board’s struggle to level the playing field between taxis and rideshare companies is a challenge that lawmakers and other regulating bodies in the US and elsewhere face as customer demand for Uber’s services grows, while taxi operators’ opposition to the company intensifies. It also reflects a broader shift in transportation that is being triggered by technology and innovation.

“Around the globe Uber is stirring multiple hornets nests,” The Christian Science Monitor reported. “In Johannesburg Uber executives are pleading with police to protect their drivers and passengers from harassment. In Toronto, hoped-for talks between Uber and regular taxi drivers just turned sour.” There were also massive cabbie strikes in Paris, a potential ban in California, and, most recently, legal disputes in Hong Kong.

Among the main issues is that “when [Uber] enters a new city, it tends to get in there without any regard for rules and regulations,” Alex Fitzpatrick, deputy tech editor for Time, said in an explainer video for the magazine. “And once people really like the app, the company goes to the local city or the local municipality and says, ‘OK, we’ve got a bunch of people using this. Now let’s figure out new rules to make it OK, and make it legal, and make it nice.’ ”

Case in point: Broward County. Before Uber stopped services there, the commissioners wanted to require “transportation network companies” to comply with strict regulations before being able to operate in the county. They wanted Uber drivers to have chauffeur registration, a vehicle permit, and commercial insurance, and for the county to conduct its own vehicle inspections and background check on drivers, WPLG reports.

Uber responded by cutting off services on July 31. “It is impossible for Uber to continue providing the high standard of service and affordability the community has come to expect under the burdens of these unnecessary regulatory barriers,” the company said in a statement. “Rather than provide substandard service, we have decided to suspend operations while we seek a path forward.”

Since then, Broward County commissioners said they have been inundated with complaints from customers who wanted the ride-hailing app back in business – implying that the service was providing something that cab operators were not.

“The huge number of people who are using [Uber] suggests that it’s filling a need that wasn’t being filled by the incumbent taxi companies,” Mr. Fitzpatrick noted.

One possible way forward is for regulators to create laws that treat companies equally.

“In an ideal world, regulators navigating the latest round of taxi wars would craft a new set of laws that better balances public welfare and safety concerns – through minimum insurance, licensure and reporting requirements, for example – while providing enough flexibility to accommodate new business models,” Catherine Rampell wrote in an op-ed for the Washington Post.

A few places are working towards that. The city council of Peoria, Ill., for instance, in June approved an ordinance that gives taxi operators fare flexibility similar to Uber’s for rides hailed via phone or app – but retains the city’s fare cap for taxis hailed on the street.

“The city set out 'to strike a balance' … with neither side getting everything it wanted,” according to the Peoria Journal Star.

The same goes for Broward County: The city board’s proposed compromise gives transportation network companies the option to register their own drivers or vehicles or allow the county to do it, while giving the county authority to audit companies’ records to make sure county standards are met, the Sun Sentinel reports. It also allows Uber to show one blanket insurance policy, as long as it meets state legal requirements.

“It’s a really interesting issue, because on the one hand, it’s a progressive company, it’s sort of this 21st-century economic model,” Time’s Fitzpatrick said. “But on the other hand, as people turn to these on-demand companies for employment, how do we make sure they have health insurance and the protections they deserve as workers and human beings?”

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