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State should get to work on regulations allowing ride sharing to compete fairly

The genie is out of the bottle on the ride-sharing service Uber. Same is true of Lyft and the other upstarts that have gotten underneath the skin of the traditional taxicab and limo industry.

Ride sharing uses a smartphone app to connect people needing rides with drivers who use personal cars to get them to their destinations.

News staff reporter Gene Warner tried out the service in Hamilton, Ont., and wrote about what supporters tout as a lower-cost and convenient operation.

The concept has gained ground. Uber is already operating in 45 states and elsewhere in the world. Thanks to state inaction, it is not available in New York outside of New York City. Buffalo is the largest city in the nation without Uber.

The company says it offers drivers flexible, part-time job opportunities, and claims nearly 500 jobs would be created in Buffalo during the first year alone, along with more than 13,000 statewide.

Moreover, a report conducted in partnership with Mothers Against Drunk Driving showed that with more transportation options for drinkers, driving-while-intoxicated arrests decline.

The company should get the chance to operate statewide. Buffalo drivers and passengers deserve this new transportation option, one delivered in a convenient, 21st century app-centric manner. Passengers know who is coming to pick them up and how much the ride will cost. Drivers know who they are picking up. There’s no fumbling around to pay the fare or make change – the fare is handled electronically. The app also allows feedback on both the driver and passengers.

Uber drivers have to go through the company’s vetting process, although detractors say it is not stringent enough.

Uber has a special arrangement allowing it to operate in New York City. It’s up to the folks in the State Legislature whether ride sharing is in our future.

The company claims it enhances public transportation by improving existing transit networks and improves safety through its driver screening program.

Supporters say the computer-heavy transaction reduces discrimination against minority passengers. NBC “Today” show weather forecaster Al Roker in November filed a complaint with New York City’s Taxi and Limousine Commission and posted a Twitter comment accusing a taxi driver of passing him by in favor of another fare for racial reasons. Roker tweeted: “Cabbie picked up a white guy a block away. Wonder why Uber wins?” Uber company officials tout their willingness to operate in underserved communities.

Opponents have a lot to say about the service, like that it would limit transportation options for the disabled and would rely unfairly on independent contractor drivers who do not have to follow the same rules on workers’ compensation, unemployment benefits and payroll withholdings. There also are concerns about safety and insurance liability.

The taxi companies are right that they shouldn’t be hobbled by rules ride sharing can ignore. The need for each regulation should be examined and either apply to both or be scrapped. Level the playing field for everyone.

The taxicab industry says ride sharing would cost at least 1,330 jobs in the Buffalo area, particularly among support personnel such as dispatchers and mechanics. However, technology is always creating new jobs while making others obsolete. That is the nature of progress, and no reason to try to hold back the tide.

One Uber practice that has drawn fire is “surge pricing,” which allows Uber to charge higher prices when demand peaks, as it did after midnight on New Year’s in New York City. Fares spiked to nine times normal. Uber’s defense is that higher prices encourage more drivers to offer rides, and it makes the higher prices known in advance.

These problems can all be dealt with. The State Legislature should start now to investigate and write rules for ride sharing.

Uber and other services like it fill a void in transportation. They should get a chance to compete.