St. Paul may become the latest city to legalize a new transportation option, a network of companies including UberX and Lyft. Disability rights advocates will be watching the process closely, due to concerns about accessible vehicles.
Mayor Chris Coleman announced the need for regulation during his 2015 city budget address. “New transportation options like UberX and Lyft, while offering an innovative service to our residents, are creating a whole new demand for oversight,” he said.
Lyft, UberX and similar services have grown in popularly. The transportation network companies allow people to act as drivers for others. The drivers connect with passengers through smartphone apps. The service is seen as an alternative to using taxis or city buses.
St. Paul City Council members are reviewing the mayor’s budget this fall and will discuss what resources should be used to regulate the vehicles. But at least one City Council member doesn’t think the transportation network services should be allowed at all.
“I have a number of objections,” said Ward Two Council Member Dave Thune. One is access and whether riders with disabilities will be left out if vehicles are not accessible. Another is passenger safety and vehicle insurance requirements. Taxicab drivers have their backgrounds checked and can lose their licenses due to criminal convictions.
“We don’t have the same kind of safeguards for drivers for these alternative services,” said Thune. “I worry about riders who may be vulnerable.”
In July Minneapolis became the sixth city in the country to legalize such services. Proponents contended. The taxi industry claims unfair competition, especially because Minneapolis now has a two-tier rate structure that charges taxi companies more than transportation network companies charge.
People with disabilities have raised concerns about the Minneapolis action for various reasons. The primary concern raised by the Minnesota State Council on Disability is that as part of its approval for transportation network services, the Minneapolis City Council removed a requirement that taxicab companies provide a mandatory number of wheelchair-accessible vehicles.
Advocates contend that the requirement was never adequately enforced, and now it could result in even fewer accessible cabs. There are also fears that transportation network services won’t provide accessible vehicles. Services like UberX and Lyft have indicated they will provide an accessible vehicle if one is requested. But advocates question how that will work when personal vehicles are used for transport of passengers.
In Minneapolis, transportation network services must pre-arrange passenger pickups and cannot pick up riders at cab stands or on the street. Also, the new transportation network services are allowed to raise rates without going through a city review and approval process.
The Minneapolis ordinance distinguishes the companies from taxicabs. That city has set up a licensing process and spells out what type of insurance must be carried. Insurance for companies like UberX and Lyft is complicated as plans become hybrids tying in a driver’s personal policy for the personal use of his or her vehicle.
St. Paul will approve its budget and resources for transportation network services regulations by year’s end. A separate ordinance process will be needed for specific new regulations, with a series of readings and a public hearing before the City Council.