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Uber is under Pressure Globally — Including Mississippi

A rising and enterprising international car service finds itself at the intersection of civics and technology. In Mississippi and elsewhere, this means the company has been and continues to be in trouble with the law, too.
Now known simply as Uber (German for “over”), the ride-sharing service was cranked up five years ago in San Francisco by two entrepreneurs, Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp.
Their idea was straightforward. People in a town could sign up as drivers. Visitors or local folks could sign up as fare-paying passengers. Connecting the drivers and drivees would be a sophisticated smart phone app.
If, say, I knew I was going to be in Paris at Orly Airport at noon on Oct. 1 and wanted to go to the Eiffel Tower, I could register a credit or debit card with Uber, type in my plans and a driver would be at Orly to pick me up. Same as if I were on the Square in Oxford and wanted to go to the stadium on the Ole Miss campus. Just enter the information. No cash involved, unless I chose to tip.
This type of service has been offered, generally, by car services since someone first figured out how to marry the Internet to their firm. The Uber differences are (1) one app (or website) for hundreds of cities and towns, (2) a lot of part time or hobby drivers using their own vehicles and (3) charging less — often much less.
And that’s where the civics comes in.
When people started living in communally several dozen centuries ago, the wisdom (and necessity) of “shared services” arose. For example, if there were a creek that needed a bridge, several people would build the bridge so everybody could use it.
If a river were too wide for a bridge, someone would operate a ferry. If the ferry operator turned out to be a slackjaw who operated in an unsafe manner, the locals would demand something be done. Standards for “ferry operator” would be set. Inspections. Licenses. Renewals.
Along with communities sharing water, sewer and garbage collection services, fire and police protection, street cleaning, drainage planning, park and cemetery maintenance and such, it became inherent that local governments would monitor and assure quality and safety.
Many shared services were and are performed by public employees. But not all. Many are delegated (franchised) to individual businesses. A common example is that while most bus services are public or quasi-public, most cab companies are private.
Municipalities have long had the authority to issue exclusive rights to sell electricity or natural gas or cable TV services within their borders. Granting such monopolies has been very efficient, historically.
When it has come to authorizing cab companies to operate in a community, fairly stringent standards have developed, too. Uber requires that its drivers have insurance, but local cab companies must file their policies with local regulators. Too, “authorized” drivers must use certified meters and charge approved rates, pass commercial driving exams and, in some places, submit to drug tests. Their vehicles must be appropriately marked and pass inspections.
Another factor, especially in big cities, is the cost of licensure. In New York, where 52,000 people are authorized by the city to drive vehicles for hire, city-issued operating certificates (medallions) trade for up to $1 million these days.
How fair is it to allow Uber to operate in the Big Apple without medallions or to operate in Oxford with no licensure, inspection or certification? Easy answer: Not at all.
One view is that, hey, time marches on. Uber has built a better mousetrap when it comes to public transit.
The counter view — the one resulting in police citations for operating an unlicensed taxi in Oxford — if that public safety assurances, local licensure authority and protection of a business investment are worthwhile considerations, too.
In court in communities large and small, Uber has been winning some, losing some. There are great policy arguments either way.
It comes down to public opinion. Like that ferry operator who didn’t do a good job 500 or 800 years ago, if an Uber driver messes up really bad, the company will sink. People like the convenience and we love bargain fares. But we don’t like being exposed to danger if we have any choice about it. We expect government to take care of us. Government cherishes nothing more dearly than its power to regulate almost everything.
It’s not a topic of supreme importance. It’s just interesting to watch the evolution. And to wonder how it will shake out.
Charlie Mitchell mugshot 2013Charlie Mitchell is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail cmitchell43@yahoo.com.

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