Uber taxi service gets rolling in South Bend

Jul 21

SOUTH BEND — A different kind of taxi hit the streets Thursday in the South Bend area, and traditional cab drivers aren’t happy about it. City officials and those at South Bend International Airport aren’t thrilled about it either.

 

 

The new company is called Uber.

It’s not really a cab company as much as a technology firm — it makes mobile applications that connect people who need a ride with people who are willing to give them a lift. Drivers sign up through Uber and use their own vehicles; passengers pay for the ride with a credit card through the mobile app.

It operates in more than 100 cities in the United States and 45 other countries, and South Bend is one of 22 college towns added to the network Thursday

Several traditional taxi companies and municipalities have fought Uber because people who drive for the company are not required to have a commercial driver’s license or a chauffeur’s license. They see Uber as skirting regulations that apply to other cab companies.

Christine Huff, owner of United Cab in South Bend, said traditional taxi companies are required to have regular vehicle inspections, pay licensing fees, and buy high-liability insurance policies. Their drivers are required to prove they have good driving records and obtain special driver’s licenses as well as undergo annual background checks and drug tests, she added.

“It’s going to hurt our business,” Huff said of Uber. “They’re taking money out of hardworking people’s pockets.”

Pooneet Kant, general manager of regional expansion for Uber, said people who drive for the company are considered independent contractors. Company representatives don’t meet every driver in person, he said, but every driver is subjected to a background check at the county, federal and state levels.

Kant said Uber also has a commercial insurance policy with $1 million of coverage for incidents that occur during an Uber trip. “We’re very confident that riders and drivers are protected during our trip,” he said.

He added that riders receive the name of the driver who is picking them up as well as that person’s license plate number and vehicle type. Riders also can rate each driver based on quality of service, and those anonymous ratings are visible to the public.

But that doesn’t mean Uber is completely welcome here.

South Bend International Airport officials issued a statement Thursday afternoon to inform travelers that Uber drivers are not allowed to pick up passengers there. Every company and individual hired to transport a person from the airport is required to have a contract with the airport authority.

“Our ordinance and rules and regulations are in place for the safety of the traveling public,” the airport’s executive director, Mike Daigle, said in a statement.

The South Bend Common Council passed a new ordinance in 2011 that regulates taxis in the city. The measure raised the fine for operating a taxi without a license from $100 to $500.

Kara Kelly, director of communications for the mayor’s office, said the city promotes innovation but doesn’t want inequalities in the local transportation industry.

“As it stands, this alternative is not considered the same as public vehicles for hire,” she said of Uber. “We’re looking into if we need to classify, and potentially regulate, ride sharing.”

Kant said no one from Uber reached out to airport or city officials before launching the service here Thursday, but he said the company will have conversations with them. “We are very open and looking forward to working with the city and will reach out to the airport as well,” he said.

Kant said there are people already signed up to be Uber drivers in the South Bend area, but he wouldn’t say how many. An Uber advertisement on Craigslist invites South Bend residents to “make your car into a cash machine” and claimed drivers typically earn $50,000 per year.

Kant said everyone in South Bend can try Uber for free this weekend. The company is offering five free rides, each worth up to $25, through Monday.

- By Kevin Allen South Bend Tribune Aug 29, 2014