Ashton Kutcher made an unplanned cameo during a Florida Senate Transportation Committee meeting two weeks ago. Uber representatives presented a clip of the Two and Half Men star and Uber investor on Jimmy Kimmel Live blasting Miami for not changing longstanding laws to accommodate the upstart car service.
"Basically, it's like mafioso, like village mentality of like we're not gonna let the new guy in," the actor said. "Like in Miami."
Diego Feliciano might be considered one of those mafiosi. Feliciano is the president of the South Florida Taxicab Association. A man who got his start more than 30 years ago as a cab driver, Feliciano says Uber seeks to skim the top off taxis' business while potentially threatening service to those who can't afford the app.
"I just don't see the taxicab industry existing in Miami-Dade County if someone gets to do what we want to do and not doing what we have to do," he said in a recent interview with Riptide. "It's just not a fair playing field."
Feliciano also says the Miami taxi industry now realizes the need to innovate. Not only are credit card readers coming soon to all cabs, but also more cab companies will likely partner with competing Uber-like apps in the near future.
New Times spoke with Uber CEO Travis Kalanick last September, but for the uninitiated, the venture-capitalist-backed San Francisco startup allows users to pull up an app on their smartphone and order one of its cars, usually black luxury sedans. Payment is handled through the app by credit card, and a 20 percent "tip" is automatically added with no option to offer more or less. Instead of rewarding good or bad service with money, users are instead asked to rate their driver on a five-star scale. The driver's average rating is displayed on the app as users wait for their cars. Prices for the service are significantly higher than taxicabs and are not fixed. The company employs "surge pricing" when demand is unusually high, such as during periods of inclement weather or holidays.
Current Miami-Dade law regulating town car services, however, makes it nearly impossible for the company to operate here. Cars have to wait an hour after being ordered to arrive and must charge at least $70. Town car and limo services are also licensed in Miami, with the current cap on licenses sitting at 625. After failing to find traction to repeal those laws on the county level, Uber has unleashed an aggressive campaign in the state legislature. It's estimated the company has about 20 lobbyists in Tallahassee.
Feliciano says Uber's entrance into the industry could have disastrous affects by unleashing a new fleet of unregulated cars to compete with taxis.
"These cab drivers now are not only losing because they've got all these unregulated vehicles competing directly with them, but then they're also losing the cream of the crop of the business," he says of Uber's hypothetical entrance in the market. "Fairly said, my cab drivers gotta go pick up a couple 50-, 60-dollar fares in Gables Estates and Kendall to make ends meet. They can't just go pick up a mom who has to go to the laundry and do all the other little jobs."
Many drivers, especially those who own their own cabs and have shelled out for pricey permits, are financially bound to their cabs. They're also mandated to drive passengers anywhere in the city and must abide by fixed prices.
Of course, the taxi industry, particularly in Miami-Dade, has been rightly criticized for being apprehensive to change. Long after most other major American cities required cabs to accept credit cards, the county commission passed such an ordinance only earlier this year.
"We're moving forward. We supported these ordinances," Feliciano says. "We need charge cards -- not in some cabs, in all cabs. The public needs it. It's part of our service. We're a world-class city. That is a done deal."
Feliciano says the union is negotiating with several credit card processing companies and will likely strike a deal soon so that credit card readers are installed in all cabs for free.
And the tech innovation might not stop there.
"Every one one of our cab companies is being approached by one of the three major apps that exists in the United State that is not Uber, that are their competitors," Feliciano estimates.
One cab company, Super Yellow, has already partnered with the app Fly Wheel. The free app allows users to hail a cab, track the taxi's progress, and pay for the transaction through their smartphone via credit card. He estimates it already makes up about 20 percent of the company's business.
"I don't think it will ever serve all the public, but apps are here to stay," he says.
In fact, Feliciano says, he could imagine Uber's app entering Miami-Dade if the company agrees to work with existing taxis. However, he says Uber has refused several times to meet.
"If Uber came into Miami-Dade County and put their app on our cabs, we'd love them," he says. "Why not? Just follow the rules. They're a venture capitalist company. The money doesn't even stay here. We're here. We live here."
As for Kutcher, an investor who stands to profit from Uber's continued expansion, his video cameo didn't go over too well in Tallahassee. The video apparently rubbed several lawmakers the wrong way.
The original version of the "Uber bill" in the Florida House has since been gutted, but it would still provide a road to Uber's operation in Miami. It passed its first committee last week, but a Senate version has yet to find similar traction.
Keep Miami New Times Free... Since we started Miami New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Miami, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Miami with no paywalls.