Will Lochamy: My Uber App won’t work. Can I get a Lyft, Alabama?

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We have a transportation problem, right? I think we can all agree on that. Good news … there is a solution. In fact, Rep. Jack Williams has proposed House Bill 509 to solve it. I went to Montgomery to support it. Here are some thoughts;

The Birmingham (metro) area is blossoming in ways that were unimaginable just a few years ago. It makes me proud. From what I’ve read, it makes you proud too. We should be proud. Regions Field, award-winning restaurants and breweries, The Civil Rights Museum, Railroad Park, Yellowhammer Creative, Birmingham Mountain Radio, and our newly found sense of community are just some of the very legitimate reasons for us all to be proud. We are not the only ones taking notice. National articles are popping up all the time that name us, formerly known as “Bombingham,” as one of the “best” in many different categories.

There’s no denying that we are now a proud, progressive, educated, and scene-influencing town. So why do we continue to be the “last” in so many things? I might have found out when I went to our Statehouse this week.

At one time (somewhat recently), I was the GM of the largest pub in Birmingham. It was my responsibility, along with every single employee, to make sure customers were not over served or ever behind the wheel intoxicated. It’s all spelled out in the Dram Shop Act (feel free to read about it here: Dram Shop Act). This was and always will be a nearly impossible task. Believe me, we tried hard. We took all of the obvious precautions, but in the end, it came down to making sure people didn’t drive. We placed Yellow Cab’s number all over the walls and called the number for them, time after time. Too many times, they wouldn’t wait or the cab just simply wouldn’t show. If we were lucky, we could persuade them to wait and take them home in our personal vehicles. It was a major inconvenience, but far better than the alternative.

Now out of that industry, my new job has me traveling. While working in San Francisco a couple of years ago, a fellow employee advised me to download the Uber app. Out of the gate, I was blown away. This was Uber Black I was using. It’s the fancy Uber service that you often hear about as being top notch. It is. An SUV, town car, or limo generally shows up depending on your group size and/or preference.

As I began working in Charlotte, I started using Uber X. This is the “boogie man under the bed” service they offer. The one where drivers use their own vehicle. That last sentence leads to misconceptions. A lot of them. People take this to mean any average Joe can open an app, jump in their car, and find people who need rides. This is far from the truth. Uber is the boss, the driver is the employee. They use their own vehicle, while insured by Uber and only after passing a background check.

Every Uber ride I’ve been on has been prompt and courteous, the driver has had a clean vehicle, and I’ve felt safe each time. If any of these things fall short, I can give the driver a negative rating on the app. If I happen to be a jerk (which I’m not), the driver can give me a negative rating. Too many negative ratings for them, they’re no longer a driver. Too many for me, they won’t pick me up. I like that. I like accountability.

So why don’t we have Uber? The public screams for it. Every other state in the South has it. There are more than a million Uber rides per day, but we can’t get one in our great state? M.A.D.D. has come out in support and the stats clearly show that DUI deaths drop in states that have ride sharing, but it’s not for us? Why in the world would we oppose what consumers rave about?

The opposition (Yellow Cab and head of the Birmingham Transportation and Communications Committee, Kim Rafferty) cries fowl on multiple points. Let’s quickly break down a couple.

Point 1. Safety.

The word “rape” was thrown around more times than I can count while the state house debated HB 509. “Uber drivers are raping women,” was the narrative. The honorable state Rep. Louise Alexander (District 56) repeated that she “didn’t want to be raped by a Google driver.”

Rebuttal 1. This argument is bunk. (So is the fact that someone that doesn’t know the difference in “Uber” and “Google” is running our state.)

The stories of Uber Drivers being arrested for assault or rape are unacceptable. There is no excuse for this. At the same time, we need to look at the numbers. In 2014, as Uber was just blossoming, there were more than 140 million Uber rides. The reports of arrests are just a handful. With a quick Google search, you can find page after page of Yellow Cab drivers arrested for rape, assault, and even murder. This isn’t Yellow Cab’s or Uber’s fault. It’s a societal issue. You can just as easily find staggering numbers of arrests for teachers, Sunday school teachers, and government employees. This argument is flawed and can’t be held against Uber.

Rebuttal 1b. This argument is really bunk.

Think of the lives lost to drunken driving. Think of the lives that could be saved be people having multiple, reliable options for rides. This is the biggest point of this debate. Period.

Point 2. This should be decided by municipalities.

The one municipality in question is Birmingham. Its transportation regulations are proposed by Kim Rafferty. The issue here is that LW Associates LLC is the consulting firm for Kim Rafferty. The owner of LW Associates, Lou Willie IV, is the son of Lou Willie III who represents several cab companies. Look away folks … there’s nothing to see here.*

Rebuttal 2. This is too big for each municipality. Plus, you already screwed it up.

There are 37 municipalities in Jefferson County alone. They are asking Uber to come up with agreements for every single municipality they would operate in. It’s not feasible. The state can (hopefully) come up with one set of regulations that would apply to everyone.

Rep. Jimmy Martin during committee meeting. (Photo credit: Will Lochamy)

While witnessing the discussion of HB 509 in the House committee, I was disappointed in many things. For one, there were grown men and women talking and giggling while people were speaking. I recently spoke at a middle school and saw much better behavior. Get it together, adults. In addition, the representative of District 42 (Jimmy Martin) showed little knowledge of the subject by insinuating that each driver was their own company. He might have learned more had he not dozed off multiple times.

It’s time we give the tax-paying consumers what they want. This one is a no-brainer. It’s going to save lives. At the very least, it’s going to add convenience to our community and make it more inviting to visitors.

Here’s what you should do …

If you want this service, actually contact your state and local rep. They claim there aren’t many people telling them they want it (even though 9,000 of us already have the app). Tell them. If you don’t know who they are, you can easily find out by searching for minute or two on Google (or Uber … I get confused with the two).

We can’t let money or uninformed, sleepy officials keep this from us. This is a corner piece on the Birmingham rebirth puzzle. It’s time to log on.

*Correction: This article has been updated to correct the fact that Lou Willie III not his son Lou Willie IV has represented various cab companies in the past.*  When asked about this in an interview with Weld last year Rafferty confirmed, “Yes, [Willie III] represents a few cab companies – and he did even when Lou [Willie IV] worked for me from 2009-2011.”

Photo Credit: AP File Photo