Uber Über Alles? | Hackie | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

Published June 24, 2015 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated June 24, 2015 at 10:04 a.m.

"So, Jernigan," a regular customer asked me as I drove her home on a recent Thursday night, "what do you think of Uber?"

"Don't get me started," I replied.

If I chuckled, it was forced, because Uber is not one of my favorite things.

For those out of the loop, the first thing to know is that Uber is not a taxi company. Its drivers pick up people who need rides from, let's say, Point A and transport them to Point B. For this service, these passengers pay Uber money, which is divided between Uber and the Uber driver. But don't call Uber a taxi company, because it's not. And how do we know this? Because Uber says so.

I say, if you walk, talk and squawk like a duck, you're either a duck or doing a mean impersonation of a duck.

For months, Uber has operated illegally in Burlington. This is not just my opinion. The city attorney sent this non-taxi company an official letter informing it that it is operating in violation of the city taxi ordinance. Which was probably a strange letter for Uber to receive.

I picture the owners huddled around a table. "What does this even mean?" they say to one another, bewildered and indignant. "We are not a taxi company. Haven't we made that clear to all concerned? Don't they know that we changed our original company name from UberCab to Uber precisely to avoid this confusion?"

There's a reason Uber declaims loudly and often that it is not a taxi company. If it were, it would be subject to the laws governing the operation of taxis in every town, state and country it entered. And Uber really, really doesn't want to follow those taxi laws. Among other nuisances, that would entail having its cabs and drivers licensed. "No need," the owners say. Because — all together now — "We are not a taxi company!"

This logic is Orwellian, and it makes this longtime licensed Burlington cab driver nuts. Can you tell?

A couple of times over the past few months, I have taken my concerns to city council meetings. Before the councilors get down to the issues of the day, they set aside time for public comments. Anyone who so desires can speak to the full council and the mayor for two minutes, or sometimes three. There is a timer. You get a yellow light when you have a minute remaining, and a red one when your time is up. I, for one, appreciate the traffic-light scheme.

With my heart pounding — because it's scary to speak publicly — I've delivered my impassioned point of view. "The city has told Uber it is operating illegally," I expounded, "but months have gone by, and nothing is being done to shut it down. Why do the local cabbies — dozens of us — have to follow the rules, but this one company gets a pass? I don't mind competition, but on a level playing field."

As I spoke, it appeared to me that the council members were seriously listening. But I also know, from decades of experience, that the regulation of taxis is far down on the list of those well-meaning elected officials' pressing concerns. I doubted whether my words, and those of other cabbies, would spur meaningful action.

Finally Mayor Miro Weinberger came up with a plan, one that is scheduled for a city council up-or-down vote during the June 29 meeting. He realized, I imagine, that the ongoing illegal operation of a major Burlington cab company was untenable. So I give him credit for doing something. The mayor's proposed solution, however, has hit my fairness bone like a sledgehammer.

He is asking the council to authorize an "operating agreement" that would apply to Uber, and Uber alone. In other words, while every other taxi company would still have to follow the existing taxi ordinance, Uber would be subject to its own personalized set of rules. And, lo and behold, with minor tweaks, the Uber rules allow the company to keep operating exactly as it has been. How convenient!

The mayor said at a June 1 council meeting that this was "no big deal," given that at least 20 other municipalities have passed similar agreements to facilitate Uber's operation. To me, this sounds like "Hey, all the other kids are doing it." The mayor didn't say that many cities and towns — not to mention entire countries, including Germany, France and Korea — are fighting tooth and nail to force Uber to comply with established rules.

Rather than leveling the playing field, the mayor's proposal would erect an entirely separate field for one company. And that company just happens to be a multinational, multi-billion-dollar corporation. When Republican presidential candidates such as Marco Rubio and Paul Rand are asked about their plans to advance the national economy, they regularly mention Uber.

I find that telling.

I recently had lunch with a friend who graciously allowed me to vent about this. After hearing me out, he raised what I thought was a great question: If Bernie Sanders was still mayor, how would he respond to Uber? I want to believe he would fight for the little guy.

I don't know how all this will ultimately play out in the Queen City. Ironically, given my fervency, the appearance of Uber has scarcely hurt my own business. I wouldn't say I'm immune, but most of my customers are long-standing and loyal to me. No, I am in this fight because fairness. I'm really trying not to obsess, but my dander is up and I've got to see it through.

At least one longtime and respected Burlington official is squarely in the corner of us local cabbies. Airport commissioner and ex-city council president Bill Keogh recently emailed Seven Days reporter Alicia Freese to say: "Looks like we are throwing our taxis under the bus!" Right on, Bill.

I've actually considered giving Bernie a call, but I suspect he's a bit busy these days.