July 2016 by Mike Beggs
Cab industry still winning the battle with Uber in upstate New York
by Mike Beggs
“When are we going to get Uber?” the announcers at WGR 55 Sports Radio station in Buffalo ask regularly, as if being deprived of something as elemental as sun, or water.
Indeed, Buffalo is the only NFL city without the services of this ride-booking behemoth, offering its cheap, prompt service in 475 cities around the world – and stirring up controversy, seemingly, wherever it goes.
And the wait, for WGR’s announcers, continues. In late June, a Bill which would have allowed Uber and Lyft to operate in Upper New York State failed to pass at the State Legislature in Albany before session’s end — meaning New York City remains the only municipality in New York to sanction Uber service.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo first sought state-wide regulation of the ride-booking industry three years back, suggesting, “You can’t do Uber city by city.” But when this reached an impasse, Uber began pushing for changes to insurance laws to allow them to service Upper New York cities like Buffalo, Albany, Syracuse, and Rochester (with a state-wide “hybrid” plan for its ride-booking partners).
Being driven by Senator James Seward, chair of the Senate Insurance Committee, the Bill would have created state-authorized insurance to cover all commercial ridesharing activities — allowing Uber and Lyft to operate upstate, while leaving it to individual municipalities to regulate these companies. While Seward claimed the upstate cities are “clamouring” for TNC service, members of the Senate and the Assembly were unable to iron out their differences before a June 23 deadline.
“It was certainly close. But elected officials need education on all the issues. Our No. 1 priority is a fair playing field,” says Mark Ilacqua, a leader of the newly formed Upstate Transportation Association (UTA), and owner of Suburban Taxi in Syracuse.
He says their big fight isn’t just insurance, but also public safety (calling for proper police background checks, with fingerprinting) and consumer protection (against Uber practices like surge pricing).
The UTA claims it’s not opposed to competition, “but there needs to be a fair playing field”. Ilacqua notes it costs licensed taxi operators $8,000 to $10,000 before they make their first trip, which would place them at a “significant disadvantage” against Uber X’s uninsured, cut-rate service.
“The problem is, our industry is disorganized and we need to work together,” he adds.
In the spring of 2014, Uber had launched its unlicensed, improperly insured Uber X service under the radar in Rochester and Buffalo, but — unlike in Ontario — saw the Attorney General step in and shut them down.
And, while Uber has managed to push through its argument that it’s, “a technology company” and not a taxi service in many cities — Toronto, most recently — the Upstate cab companies have so far managed to hold them at bay, with help from the Taxi Alliance of New York City. One of Uber’s strongest opponents, Bill Yuhnke, president of Buffalo’s Liberty Cab, dismisses the above claims, telling the Associated Press, “You can’t be half-pregnant. You’re either a taxi or you’re not.”
“We’ve held them off for three years,” Yuhnke tells Taxi News.
“We’ve been very successful in getting the truth out. They’re not wheelchair accessible….And, all you’ve got to do is pick up a paper. The Detroit shootings, the driver was a pretty good driver, he just killed people in between his fares.”
Yuhnke notes that while taxi operators in many cities have “gone on the defensive” against Uber, he has launched a frontal attack — in the media, in Albany and Washington, and with constant postings on his Facebook page.
“In Buffalo, they’ve been talking about their new technology,” he continues. “It ain’t new technology. We’ve had it for five years, with Taxi Magik, and Curve.”
According to its New York general manager, Josh Mohrer, Uber now operates legally in 27 states, and the people of Upper New York State, “really want this.” Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown, himself, is a proponent.
“Buffalo is now the largest American city, by population, that doesn’t have Uber,” Mohrer told AP, in December. “My goal is to go where we’re not.”
He claims reliability is their No. 1 calling card. He told The Buffalo News, “We want to be reliable as running water.”
Uber promises to create thousands of driving jobs throughout the upstate. Licensed brokers counter that it threatens the jobs of dispatchers, office staff – and, of course — drivers themselves.
“They’re creating jobs?” Yuhnke scoffs. “At this minute, they’re testing the driverless cars, right down the road in Pennsylvania.”
And of the lobbying battle against this $60 billion corporation, he says, “I’m shooting a peashooter, and they’re shooting a bazooka.”
According to Ilacqua, the UTA is trying not to confuse the politicians with too much information.
“I think what the elected officials understand the best is public safety, and consumer protection,” he says.
Yuhnke is among those to question Uber’s claims of having a $1 million liability policy in place to cover drivers, but says, “unfortunately” it may take a death or serious accident to find out if these claims are true. And he stresses that Uber drivers might pay only about $1,000 for the proposed hybrid insurance, while licensed cabbies shell out about $6,000 per year.
He suggests Uber’s background checks are “a farce”.
Another sticking point in Seward’s Bill was that it did not address the issue of wheelchair accessible taxi service. In a letter to Cuomo, the United Spinal Association stressed that not one of Uber’s 30,000 independent contractors operating in New York City has an accessible vehicle.
While it may be an uphill battle to get their message out, Yuhnke’s not stopping.
“Most taxi owners are a little bit shy of the media, but they’ve never run into Bill Yuhnke,” he adds.
“I already went on record I would contact an attorney and sue the City (if they allow Uber in). I’m very serious. Other brokers are just as serious.”