Uber, Lyft ridesharing in Alabama gets mixed reaction from lawmakers

Photo Credit: AP File Photo

Lawmakers can’t agree  whether bringing an app-based ride-hailing service like Uber or Lyft to Alabama is a good thing.

Just this week, House lawmakers declined to vote on legislation by Rep. Jack Williams that would have forced the companies to operate under greater state supervision. Legislators’ responses to the bill were mixed, according to reporters at the hearing, ranging from concerns over sexual assaults of passengers to the low proposed registration fee.

That may not be surprising, since the public is reporting mixed views on ridesharing.

Uber and Lyft are mobile-app based ridesharing networks. In a nutshell, they provide passengers who need a ride with a driver able to provide it. Passengers can use a smartphone to schedule a ride alone or to arrange to share with several strangers headed the same way.

Riders in major cities worldwide are already using the service. Though both companies are privately-owned and not required to issue financial projections, Uber is projected to earn upward of $10B in 2015; Lyft is expected to generate $1B in revenue.

Uber has already made several attempts to break into Alabama markets: Tuscaloosa, Huntsville, Birmingham and Auburn.

Last year, Uber launched a social media campaign to rally supporters in Birmingham to the idea and block the city’s attempt to add regulations to their model. Hundreds of tweets using the hashtag #BirminghamNeedsUber showed overall support from would-be passengers.

Birmingham resident Amanda Watkins tweeted “Friends in Alabama: If you want to have a good time in Birmingham and a safe ride home, then support @Uber! #BirminghamNeedsUber”

In Wednesday’s hearing, Hoover City Council member John Lyda reportedly said that he was in favor of bring the model to the state, saying it would bring “choice and competition” to his residents. Former driver Harry Poole said, “When I was in Auburn, everybody loved Uber,” and that parents would often tell students to call Uber rather than a traditional taxi service.

But some have voiced concern over Uber’s tiered approach to service. In an interview, Birmingham City Council president Johnathan Austin said that cheaper UberX version was problematic because of lower driver requirements and training: “We want Uber but With UberX you just don’t know because it’s a different model. So you could have a driver who might not have been trained, you could have a driver who does not know the city.”

The company maintains that its insurance and training requirements help to ensure passenger safety. “All uberX rides are insured up to $1M per incident–twice what is required of taxicabs in Birmingham,” Uber officials said in that same story. “Drivers must pass rigorous background checks at the county, state and federal level before they are ever allowed access to the technology.”

Despite the company’s assurances, there have been several reports alleging driver misconduct in Alabama and nationwide. The company’s launch in Tuscaloosa quickly devolved into a fight with city officials over ordinances that govern taxi services. Soon after that, an Uber driver was caught in an undercover sting and charged with ordinance violations along with several drug and alcohol offences.

Uber and Lyft have also been the subject of lawsuits by passengers, with allegations including negligent driving, assault, and sexual assault.

In fact, Birmingham City Councilor Kim Rafferty cited concerns over passenger safety in a leaked email exchange with Mayor Walt Maddox. In her email, Rafferty suggested the formation of an ad-hoc committee to work with ridesharing companies in and out of the state on a model that meets regulatory and safety concerns.

“Change in the on-demand for hire transportation industry is coming,” she said. “We need to be not just prepared but proactive.”

No vote from lawmakers on Wednesday could mean that – for good or ill – change is unlikely to come to Alabama in this legislative session.

In the interim, Uber has taken another approach to attracting local fans. The Uber in Alabama Twitter accounted tweeted on Friday, “Though regulations prevent us from connecting you with rides in #Birmingham, we can still connect you with giving” with a link to have an Uber driver pick up donations and drop them off at a Goodwill center in Birmingham.