Ride-sharing services are critical for modern cities. Rochester is no different.
Should Rochester follow in the footsteps of Minneapolis, St. Paul and hundreds of other cities around the world in welcoming ride-sharing services — such as Uber or Lyft — with open arms? Or do we take a more nuanced approach?
Where we stand now
For the past six months, city staff has been reviewing various options on how to regulate TNCs (transportation network companies) that may be interested in bringing their services to town. The process was initiated after the ride-sharing giant Uber approached the city about potentially including Rochester on its app, but only if a new ordinance was passed.
The issue, as it stands now, is that Rochester's current ordinance requires companies to have a taxicab franchise license. Among the rules, franchisees must own at least 15 marked vehicles and offer rates regulated by the city.
But companies like Uber don't play by the same set of rules. Their business models depend on individual contractors who offer rides on a mobile application. They don't buy cars nor do they hire full-time drivers.
Concerns about TNCs
The battles between TNCs and local municipalities have been well-documented in recent years. First, there is the issue of whether it's fair to taxicab companies to let a multi-billion dollar company completely upend an entire local industry. These companies make large investments in their vehicle fleet, as well as their drivers, and have concerns that TNCs could put them out of business.
But as council member Nick Campion pointed out in a recent interview, the model is changing and the city should not actively prohibit a service that many in the community could benefit from.
"We can’t be over-prescriptive," said Campion. "We want to make it fair for everyone to compete, but that doesn’t mean making ride-share companies operate like taxi companies. There's room for both in the city."
The second issue is the matter of accountability. Cities like Austin, Tex. have implemented tight restrictions on TNCs, such as fingerprint-based backgrounds checks, and Uber and Lyft have suspended operations as a result.
While all Uber and Lyft drivers undergo online background checks, there have been isolated cases, such as this one in Kalamazoo, Mich., that have caused a great deal of controversy regarding the safety of its services.
Without dismissing these concerns, it is important to note that Uber alone provides about 2 million rides per day. And when drivers perform poorly (passengers are asked to rate their drivers' performance after a trip), they are quickly booted out of the app. Now, that's not to say the system is perfect, but it helps to provide perspective when faced with startling headlines.
Rochester City Clerk Aaron Reeves, who has been the point person for discussions on ride-sharing, recently sent a memo to the city administrator with three alternatives for addressing TNCs.
Option one is to "do nothing." The current ordinance would allow ride-sharing companies to come in if they receive a taxicab franchise license. But as Reeves noted, that is "highly unlikely based on the TNC business model."
The second option would be to adopt a general ordinance like the ones in St. Paul and Minneapolis. According to the memo, Uber has indicated that it would potentially be interested in coming in under similar guidelines; Lyft does not have any interest at this time but could possibly in the future.
However, Reeves has reservations about adopting a similar ordinance.
"The concern I have is that it is very difficult to find a situation where TNCs have come into a city without a large amount of controversy and issues," said Reeves. "I have a number of articles from 2014 to today from all over the world that detail the often difficult process of having TNCs begin operations. I would like to avoid this situation if possible."
The third option would be a bit more complicated. It entails developing a "much more focused ordinance that would allow for TNCs to operate in a way that would be a partnership with the City and local Taxicab Franchises."
Reeves said he has "reviewed this option with two of the smaller TNC’s (InstaRyde and Ride Fare) that have expressed interest in possibly coming to Rochester and they would be willing to discuss this option further."
Without getting into all the details (you can see the full recommendation in the memo), this option would allow TNCs to operate in Rochester using independent drivers; however, it would require that TNCs offer their services through the local taxicab franchises if the franchises are interested.
In other words, it would be a compromise aimed at satisfying the demands of anxious consumers with the concerns from taxicab companies and those worried about safety and transparency.
There's a transportation revolution under way and Rochester must be proactive in how it addresses the increasing demand for TNCs.
Nearly 3 million people visit this city each year, often in difficult circumstances, and we need to provide them with the best possible transportation options. In the modern world, that includes ride-sharing.
Further, we need to do everything we can to attract and retain young talent — and I would challenge you to find one person under 30 who thinks you can have a fully-functioning city without Uber, or a similar service.
It is now an expectation that when you arrive in a new city, you can get a ride anywhere, anytime straight from your phone. Simply put, this is not an issue we can afford to kick down the road; we need to take action.
The good news is the council is expected to discuss ride-sharing at a meeting sometime in October. Already two council members, Campion and Michael Wojcik, have expressed explicit support for finding a way to allow TNCs to operate. Additionally, council member Mark Bilderback said Thursday he is "open to change" but wants to hear more details before taking a position.
In the meantime, don't wait for your council member to make up his or her mind. Contact them and make your voice heard.
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(Cover graphic: The Med City Beat)