Uber and similar ride-hailing services could come to Bellingham now that the city has decided how to regulate them.
Bellingham would be one of the smaller cities that Uber operates in, and one of only a handful in Washington state to have the service.
Since early this year, Bellingham City Council has wrestled with how to regulate ride-hailing or ride-sharing services, also called transportation network companies.
Monday night, Sept. 28, council agreed to create a new section of city code to regulate such companies in a 5-2 vote, with members Jack Weiss and Michael Lilliquist opposed.
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Uber and similar smartphone app-based services allow people to offer their private cars up for rides without working for a cab company. The companies’ apps pair drivers with riders, who have an account that charges their credit card when they take a ride.
Uber started to generate buzz in Bellingham in November 2014, when it hosted meetings that were advertised on Craigslist as the first steps for people to learn about driving for the company. Uber hasn’t started operating here pending the council’s move to regulate the business.
The new rules are different from those that taxi companies need to follow in the city.
Taxi drivers in Bellingham need to get a special license from Bellingham Police Department by going through a local background check of “felony, misdemeanor and traffic convictions which have occurred in the last 10 years,” and submitting fingerprints, according to city code.
Under the new rule, Uber and other transportation networks would need to get background checks for their drivers on their own that include seven years (the maximum allowed by many state laws) of “local, state, and national criminal history databases and national state sex offender registries.” While some companies could require their drivers to submit fingerprints, the city rule doesn’t require it.
Weiss has voiced his concerns specifically about Uber’s background checks during various meetings on the topic, citing an Aug. 19 New York Times article that outlined evidence in San Francisco and Los Angeles, where district attorneys say people convicted of murder, sex offenses and property crimes have driven for Uber.
Both taxis and transportation networks are required by local and state law to have various levels of insurance and liability protection.
Both also are required to make sure drivers’ vehicles get inspected, but while taxis need to be inspected for a fee by Bellingham police, Uber drivers could have their cars inspected by a certified mechanic.
An Uber spokeswoman could not be reached Tuesday to comment on when the company might start offering rides in town. However, the company’s operations manager for the Pacific Northwest, Jonathan Hopkins, has testified before City Council on multiple occasions to comment on the company’s policy and talk about their interest in bringing Uber here.
Deb Logan, president of Yellow Cab, said she was glad to see the city had opted to regulate companies like Uber.
“It looks like they have put some teeth in regulating them,” Logan said. “Any regulation is probably better than none.”
But Logan said she was concerned about how workers for ride-hailing companies are treated, since they are considered contractors, not employees, like her drivers are.
She also said she was unsure what would happen if a bunch of extra drivers started operating in the city.
“It’s not going to help. It’s like putting too many cows on a pasture — there’s only so much grass for them to eat,” Logan said. “My biggest worry is it will make it difficult to make money out there so we can service the entire population.”
Mark Metzler, who co-owns Your Cab Company with his son Andy Metzler, also worried about the playing field being uneven.
“A ride share is two people going the same direction who get in the same car,” Metzler said. “Asking someone to come pick you up and drive you somewhere, that is not a ride share. These are cab companies and should be treated as such.”