Citing outdated regulations, Uber suspended its operations in Boise, Idaho, today after just four months of operating in the city, catching the City Council completely off guard.
Just last Tuesday, the Boise City Council held a closed meeting, which an Uber representative sat in on, to discuss a draft of an ordinance that would allow Uber and other companies like it to operate legally in the city on a permanent basis. But without any indication or prior notice, the council members received an email notifying them of the company's decision to temporarily pull out of the city, according to Mike Journee, the director of communications of the Office of the Mayor.
One of the council members who initially voted against rules that would allow the company to temporarily operate in the city told BuzzFeed News that he was disappointed by the company's decision to suspend operations given the council's willingness to work with Uber.
"All of our councilmen came to a consensus [and we were ready to] start the process of [passing] the ordinance," Council Member Ben Quintana told BuzzFeed News.
The council's legal team had drafted a version of regulations that would allow Uber and other ride-hail companies to operate legally in the city, which would then be sent to all stakeholders affected by the rules for feedback and comment. After the council took stock of the feedback and made necessary changes to the draft, they would open it to public comment at a hearing scheduled for March 31.
Uber, however, felt the legislation that was proposed was out-of-date, a fact the company made clear in an open letter to the mayor sent out today.
"It became clear at the February 24th hearing that the City is on a path toward an unworkable and antiquated regulatory framework that fails to recognize the unique nature of ridesharing and attempts to fit a square peg in a round hole," Uber spokesperson Eva Behrend told BuzzFeed News.
In particular, Uber is taking issue with some of the insurance and city-regulated car inspection requirements the new draft proposes in addition to an additional city-regulated background check.
Council Member Lauren McLean said she felt the company made a good case for their insurance and safety requirements. "[Council Member] TJ Thompson and myself believe they had adequately answered safety concerns and provided a good alternative for insurance and safety requirements."
But this may no longer be an issue for Uber. The company is pursuing statewide solutions. Today, Uber lobbyist Ken McClure introduced a bill to the Idaho House of Representatives that would define regulations for Uber and other ride-hail companies in state, not local, law. The bill proposes regulating ride-hail drivers differently than taxi drivers and allowing them to operate without commercial licenses.
In the meantime, however, Boise residents will not be able to access the Uber platform. Though the Boise City Council was meeting for the first time to discuss the draft of a permanent ordinance on Tuesday, the discussion about drafting a permanent legal ordinance began when Uber first entered the market without warning in October. Once the city got word that the company had rolled out free promotional Uber rides, city representatives contacted Uber's Boise representatives.
"We said we would love to work with you to create a temporary operating agreement for you to operate a for-profit model in the city and in the meantime once we get that up and running we can talk about the larger policy about the permanent ordinances," Journee told BuzzFeed News.
But after the temporary regulations were agreed upon and put to a vote earlier this month, it was Uber that was in for a surprise. Despite having several conversations with city representatives that indicated the rules would pass, the City Council voted 4-2 not to pass the temporary rules.
"Despite many positive conversations with city staff in an attempt to find common ground, it was surprising that the Mayor and members of the Boise City Council rejected a temporary operating agreement, that they had previously heralded as an 'opportunity for Uber to prove they are a good faith operator in the city,'" Behrend said.
It wasn't because they didn't approve of Uber, however, Quintana said. According to Quintana, who voted against the temporary rules, there were some concerns about whether particular temporary regulations would work on a permanent basis.
"If you put something out and you know it's not going to last long [and] it's going to have to change later, why tell people you can do something and then three months later, [say] 'now you have to operate in a different way,'" Quintana said. "I didn't want to approve a temporary agreement when we could come up with a permanent one. I'm looking forward to our city having this service operate legally. I'm trying to make sure we can get there as soon as possible. I didn't think it was the best way to move forward with a temporary set of rules knowing that we would be changing them."
But Council Member McLean, on the other hand, was in favor of passing an interim agreement that would allow Uber to operate while the council was at the negotiating table.
"Crafting policy is a slow process," McLean told BuzzFeed News. "I thought it was important to pass an interim agreement to make sure they can operate. I'm disappointed and I wish they would stay. I met with Uber today and made that clear. I really wish they'd stay. They have to make a business decision and they were negotiating with us for five months on an interim [regulation]. I can understand why they were concerned."
Now that the City Council has unanimously agreed to move forward with the drafted permanent ordinance, even with Uber's decision to suspend its operations, the council will continue with the process and seek feedback and comment.
"We'll provide that comment and feedback to council members at their next meeting on the 3rd," Journee said. "It's not an Uber-specific ordinance, so we're going to continue to do that. We made a commitment to the community."
McLean also told BuzzFeed News she encouraged Uber to voice their opinion and continue to work with them at their meeting today and expects them to.
"It's up to us be thinking about the health and safety of our citizens while also questioning the traditional ways of regulation because they don't fit new platforms," she said.
And Uber has no plans to back down.
"While we have temporarily suspended operations within the Boise city limits, we remain committed to riders and drivers throughout Idaho," Behrend said. "We look forward to continuing the discussion with city and state leaders to develop a pathway forward for a regulatory framework that embraces ridesharing, as over 20 jurisdictions across the Unites States have already done."
Johana Bhuiyan is a tech reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Bhuiyan reports on the sharing economy with a focus on ridesharing companies.
Contact Johana Bhuiyan at email@example.com.
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