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Uber ‘Horrible for Air Quality and Traffic Congestion,’ Santa Monica Mayor Says

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

Pacific Park, Santa Monica Pier

Harding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP  law firm
Harding, Larmore
Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

By Jonathan Friedman
Associate Editor

March 23, 2015 -- Santa Monica Mayor Kevin McKeown had harsh words for Uber during last Tuesday’s City Council discussion on app-based transportation services and taxicabs.

McKeown said he was disturbed to hear that Uber contractors were continuously driving throughout the City, sometimes in a small area and even if they were not carrying passengers.

"The thought that people are being given incentive by Uber as individual contractors to be on the street non-stop, clogging our traffic and polluting our air is to me corporate irresponsibility," McKeown said.

He added, "The overall business model is just horrible for air quality and traffic congestion, and I don't know what the [California] Public Utilities Commission (PUC) was thinking.”

McKeown’s reference to the PUC was because the commission controls the regulation of Uber and similar companies such as Lyft. Local jurisdictions have almost no control over them.

The mayor and several other council members said they wanted the City to get involved in lobbying the State government about these app-based transportation services. This way, local governments could gain some control,or at least get the State to tighten rules.

Several public speakers called the current atmosphere "the wild west," describing a situation of an unknown number of Lyft and Uber drivers moving through the city with few, if any, rules guiding them.

Meanwhile, the taxicabs in Santa Monica are highly regulated by the local government. Several taxi company drivers, administrators and attorneys told the council that they were unable to compete with Lyft and Uber.

"It's like the plague has taken over," said Santa Monica taxi driver Gayle Shankle, who told the council she had to increase her work schedule to seven days to keep up with the lost business caused by the app-based companies.

"And I'm just wondering when I'm going to be required to work eight days a week just to make enough money to pay my rent and eat," Shankle said.

Several council members were sympathetic to Shankle and others who made similar comments. Council member Tony Vazquez called the situation "out of whack," and he and others said they hoped the City could lobby the PUC about it.

McKeown said he hopes the City will “work with the PUC to get control over the [app-based companies] so our taxicabs can continue to thrive and prosper side by side with them."

The City introduced a taxicab franchise system more than four years ago as a way to take control over what many people said had become a chaotic situation. Five companies received franchise rights.

Taxicab trips went down 27 percent from 2013 to 2014, according to a City staff report. This reduction was attributed to the recent introduction of companies such as Uber and Lyft.

The franchise system has many strict rules, including fare rates that cannot be adjusted. Several council members said some of these rules should be loosened, including the fare restriction, so that the taxicab companies could compete.

All six council members in attendance (Terry O’Day was absent) rejected the proposal for Uber and Lyft cars to be allowed to sit on Santa Monica curbs. No formal vote was taken since this was only a discussion item.

Eyal Gutentag, general manager of Uber for the Los Angeles area, told the council that the company should get the right to use the curb space. 

Council member Ted Winterer asked Gutentag if Uber would be willing to allow the City to regulate the company in exchange for use of of the street curbs.

Gutentag did not directly answer the question, but said, "It's our belief that we're being regulated aggressively by the State CUP."

He continued, "If we start to create a patchwork of local regulations, our consumers that use us in cities around the globe will start to have a confusing and mixed experience."

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