Uber, an App-Based Car Service, Fights to Change Miami's Transportation Laws
Travis Kalanick is a very busy man. Sitting on an overstuffed couch in the library of the Soho Beach House, the CEO of the San Francisco-based "digital dispatch" app Uber is feverishly typing away on his phone, in the midst of handling affairs at his rapidly growing startup. He rises to greet his cocktail reception patrons and smiles broadly.
"We need to have [Uber] cars here for [Art] Basel," he says. "It's gonna be a shit show."
If all goes Kalanick's way, that's what'll happen: Uber will bring its private car service to Miami, whisking locals away at a moment's notice. But the company is up against some daunting roadblocks. Uber is what Kalanick refers to as a "populace limo service," and he and his team are fighting Miami's existing transportation laws to bring their services to Dade County.
If Kalanick is victorious, Miami residents can have a private car en route with the touch of a smartphone button. How very transpo-forward. If not, the company will have to move on to another town.
Imagine this: You're stranded in no man's land without a cab in sight. You open the Uber app, choose your vehicle du jour based on proximity (check the ever-updating map, complete with estimated arrival times), and order up. The GPS on your smartphone lets your driver know where you are even if you don't. The service gives you a call when your driver is nearby, which, if Uber gets the kind of circulation in Miami that it has in 35 other cities across the country, shouldn't be more than 15 minutes. Your credit card is uploaded to the app upon downloading it, so no need to touch your wallet when you arrive at your destination. According to Kalanick, it's a cashless cab alternative made easy.
So what's the holdup? Behold, limo laws, designed in part to protect taxi services. According to the Uber blog, the company is in a bit of a rut as far as Miami-Dade legislation goes. For starters, there's a one-hour minimum wait time rule for private cars. If you order one at 4:06 p.m., you can't legally enter the car until 5:06 p.m., effectively defeating the usefulness of the insta-ordering system that is Uber. Price points are also an issue: Any sort of private car transport currently requires a $70 price minimum, no matter the distance. Doling out a paycheck for a piggyback seems a little much.
And finally, there's a limit of town-car licenses in Miami-Dade (625 to be exact). Kalanick argues that eliminating this cap could create thousands of jobs, as Uber's driver positions are open to application for anyone. "They go through a background check, city knowledge test, and professional assessment," Kalanick says. "Partners drive their own cars." That makes Uber, essentially, a middleman. It's the connection between the partners (third-party vehicle owners and car companies) and their riders, or as Uber puts it, a "digital dispatch scheme."
Uber's headway on breaking down the legislation, though steady, has been slow. The legislative vote was set for September 24, but this date now represents a discussion and workshop instead, with voting to come at a later date.
"Sosa decided that it wasn't going to be a vote," says Kalanick, referring to Chairwoman Rebeca Sosa of the Miami-Dade County Board of County Commissioners. "She's a tough one, but she's empathetic to the people's needs. It can also get streamlined if there's political will. We need as many people talking to Sosa as possible."
But how much are Miamians willing to pay for convenience? Uber black car rates are approximately double those of taxis. The company's lower-cost option, UberX, would be unavailable in Miami even if the current legislation is abolished. Popular in many of Uber's other markets, UberX allows customers to request a ride that is 10 percent less expensive than a taxi, the drawback being that your driver might pick you up in anything from a Prius to a Honda Accord. It's practicality and economy with a little less luxury. First black cars, then UberX? Wishful thinking.
"[The new legislation] doesn't allow for UberX," Kalanick says. "Only luxury vehicles. Even this ordinance is trying to protect the taxi industry."
With at least three more BCC committee meetings to go before Uber hits the streets, Kalanick is getting antsy. "If it was an up-down vote tomorrow, it would pass," he says. He and his team are honing in on social media users, whom they've asked to tweet about their #UberMiamiLove. Kalanick's personal Instagram is a testament to Uber's battle with the BCC: His latest post is a photo of the South Beach coastline, captioned, "Miami, you're a gorgeous city, but if you're not ready for a commitment (to quality transportation) we may have to call it quits."
But Instagram aside, Kalanick shows no perceptible signs of letting up. A recent Google Ventures investment of $258 million is fueling the Uber fire, and if all goes according to his plan, Uber black cars could be on the road by November 1. The company launched its Miami presence in July with on-demand ice-cream trucks that cruised the streets from SoBe to the Gables, and Kalanick and his team are adamant that Uber is the face of a much-needed change in Miami transportation.
"It changes the way you think about your life," says Nairi Hourdajian, head of public policy and communications at Uber.
For now, Kalanick is back on the couch, conversing zealously with members of his Uber team. He suddenly hops up and turns to his guests. "I just wanna do this already!" he exclaims, exhilaration splashed across his face like a kid on Christmas Eve. Chairwoman Sosa is Santa, his social media followers are the elves, and Miami is his big, fat present.
Follow Morgan on Twitter @youcancallme_MO
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