Although the launch of Uber is now old news in Charleston, the controversy surrounding the popular rideshare service is still a hot topic. Introduced in several South Carolina cities over the summer, Uber is an app that connects people in need of a ride with people who charge fares to transport them in their own vehicles. They operate in over 80 urban areas in America, from Honolulu to the Hamptons. They also operate in 44 other countries.
Here’s how it works. The app is available for free in the App Store or Google Play. Using the location of your iOS or Android phone, Uber loads a screen that resembles Google Maps and indicates the locations of nearby drivers. Set a pick-up location and destination, then wait for a privately-owned car to arrive. The only option offered in Charleston is called UberX. In larger metro areas, Uber offers more expensive options for people who want an SUV or luxury vehicle. With UberX, you can expect to ride in a Camry, Accord, or similar car. Uber’s website quotes a trip from Marion Square to Folly Beach at $23-31. They charge a flat rate of $1.95, plus $0.20 per minute and $1.75 per mile. Unlike a cab service, you are not supposed to tip Uber drivers.
But does the dissimilarity to cab companies stop there? Serious questions have been raised over Uber’s avoidance of the state and municipal regulations that govern conventional taxi companies, as well as their ruthless fights with competitor service Lyft and their liability policies. Uber has already been served with cease-and-desist orders in Michigan, Virginia, and the city of Pittsburgh. Legal action has been brought elsewhere by disgruntled cab companies, but there has also been opposition from governmental bodies, such as the South Carolina Public Service Commission. A representative from Charleston Green Taxi, who preferred to remain anonymous, says “we haven’t seen a significant drop in our business, but we have had a fair number of people complain to us about [Uber].”
On their website Uber explicitly denies any responsibility for any problems that occur during a ride with one of their drivers, stating “The Company does not provide transportation services…and has no responsibility or liability for any transportation services provided to you by such third parties.” If an Uber driver crashes while transporting a customer, the driver is personally liable. Both Uber and Lyft claim to offer a $1 million insurance plan for drivers, but 14 states have already issued warnings to drivers stating that they likely will not benefit from coverage. Uber has also run into trouble with airports, who rely heavily on income from taxi permits, and several lawsuits over their lack of compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, a universal regulation for taxi companies.
Despite the Charleston police’s efforts to discourage them, Uber representative Eric Wimer says “Charleston is going to be a huge market for us with the bar scene downtown and all the restaurants and the beaches.” Meetings were held in North Charleston prior to the launch to attract and educate potential drivers. The only requirements for drivers are a background check, vehicle inspection, and up-to-date insurance policy. An anonymous source at Charleston Green Taxi expressed concern over a “Wild West situation” if the “minimal” existing regulations are not enforced. “Uber has done a fantastic job of convincing people of something that’s not true. They say that they’re David going up against the Goliath of cab companies, but they were started up with more than $400 million investment from Google,” he says. “They are not the victims. They come in and replace city council members, and push out smaller competitors.” Uber is currently valued at more than $17 billion total.