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St. Louis requires cabbies to enter digital age

The St. Louis Metropolitan Taxicab Commission (MTC) is joining other cities embracing the digital age for hailing a cab.

On Sept. 18, the St. Louis MTC approved a requirement for all cab drivers to link to one smartphone app in order to help riders locate the closest taxi.  

In February, Chicago became the first city to require all of its 12,700 cab drivers to link to a universal smartphone app service. At the time, officials said it was imposed so cab services could compete with private ride-sharing companies such as Uber and Lyft.
 
The St. Louis MTC said its push for a singular smartphone app is not another effort to push companies like Uber out of the market. But the St. Louis MTC is seeking legal action against Uber in an effort to make the company comply with the same regulations imposed on taxicab drivers.
 
An Uber spokesperson declined to comment about the required smartphone app for cab drivers as well as the pending litigation.
 
"Uber expands the transportation ecosystem in St. Louis by offering additional options for consumers and flexible earning opportunities for drivers across the city," the Uber spokesperson said.
 
Ron Klein, executive director of the St. Louis MTC, said the commission has looked to Chicago as well as Washington, D.C., Houston and Austin for guidance on choosing the best app for cab drivers and riders.
 
“Traditional ways like dialing the phone, street hailing, cab stands are becoming less important to today’s passengers,” Klein said. “Data reveals that taxi companies still service over 50 percent of their customers by these means. However, it’s not a secret that a large swath of the population is phasing out traditional landlines and cellular companies are phasing out flip phones.”
 
The New York City Taxi-Limousine Commission (NYC-TLC) regulates more than 50,000 vehicles and 100,000 drivers but decided against imposing a universal app.
 
“New York City didn’t go the route of an official app,” said Allan Fromberg, deputy commissioner for public affairs of the NYC-TLC. “We did, however, embrace the innovation of apps and wanted to make the option available to the riding public. We created a package of rules that held app-dispatched drivers and vehicles to the same high standards to which we hold all our licensees, ensuring that these operators are fully accountable, provide price transparency and other consumer protections, and regularly submit trip data.”
 
Klein said within the St. Louis metropolitan region, 10 out of 13 of the on-call taxi companies have their own app.
 
“That’s too many,” Klein said. “In focus group discussions, it was determined that the occasional user of taxis don’t have a preferred company. They want the closest taxi.”
 
Klein said he originally hoped to have the app in place by Dec. 31, 2016, for New Year’s Eve revelers.
         
“It’s not going to happen,” Klein said. “There are some challenges that accompany this move. There are data ownership and customer privacy issues.”
 
The requirement of cab drivers to use the universal app comes in the midst of the MTC being at odds with Transportation Network Companies (TNC) regarding other regulatory issues.
 
Lyft briefly operated in the city in 2014. The MTC filed and won an injunction against the company, prohibiting its operations because it was not following MTC regulations. Uber has been operating in the city since September 2015. The MTC filed a lawsuit against Uber, alleging its drivers have not secured special MTC licenses and chauffer’s licenses, and have not provided fingerprints for background checks.
 
Klein declined to discuss specifics of the litigation and Uber’s current operations. Klein did address past charges that the MTC has tried to halt TNCs in general from operating in the metropolitan St. Louis region.
 
“It is widely reported among the media that the MTC is battling to keep TNCs from operating in this community as a way to protect the taxi companies,” Klein said. “That is a complete falsehood. The state legislature put provisions in the law when they created the MTC, namely fingerprinting and chauffeur’s licenses as a mandate. Only the legislature can change this. We have created a category in our code to allow these companies to operate here; they, however, contain the state law mandates. The two big guys won’t agree to these provisions. That is a business decision on their part.”
 
At least 28 states and Washington, D.C., have some regulations for TNCs, according to a February 2016 report from the National Conference of State Legislatures. Most regulations involve standardized insurance requirements; criminal and driving background checks for drivers; standards for vehicle safety inspections; proper communication of fares; operation at airports; and restricting the hailing of TNCs from the street.
 
House Bill 2030, which would have imposed statewide regulations in Missouri, passed in the House during the 2016 legislative session but failed to make it out of a Senate committee.