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Uber brings new ride service to Bloomington

By Lauren Slavin, Herald-Times, Bloomington, Ind.
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Aug. 29--Ride-share company Uber has begun service in Bloomington despite concerns from city government and local taxi companies.

Uber, a San Francisco-based company valued at $17 billion, was founded in 2009. Using a smartphone app, riders can request a pickup to a specific destination from company-approved drivers, with fares estimated pre-pickup and charged through a credit card saved to the app. As of Thursday, drivers are picking up riders in Bloomington, West Lafayette and South Bend, as well as Indianapolis, which started Uber service in June 2013. Uber is offering new and current Bloomington customers five free rides through Sept. 1 as part of the launch.

"We think Uber is a great option for college students, both for riders and for drivers, honestly," said Pooneet Kant, a general manager for regional expansion overseeing Uber'sBloomington launch, part of the company's efforts to expand to college towns. "If you're going to a big game and don't want to deal with parking, if you need to get home after a late night, Uber is the most reliable way to get home."

Uber drivers must be at least 21 years old, and have to pass a background check going back seven years, according to the Uber website. Drivers are screened against county and federal courthouse records and the National Sex Offender Registry, and they cannot have a history of reckless driving, including hit and runs, driving without insurance or a suspended license, and incidents such as driving under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Uber drivers' cars must be less than 10 years old, have four doors and cannot be rebuilt or have a salvage title.

After they complete training on Uber's process of requesting and accepting rides, drivers can work as much or as little as they need to, which Kant said may be particularly attractive to students.

"They're independent contractors, so they really make their own hours," he said. "They tend to have schedules that are not your typical schedules, so it tends to work really, really well."

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The average Uber ride costs 40 percent less than taking a taxi, according to Kant, and a new feature on the app allows riders to split the ride cost with a small transaction fee per rider.

In order to operate a taxi service in Bloomington, companies must abide by the city's municipal code. A taxi company needs to apply and receive business license through the city, have an office in the city, have a valid policy of commercial general liability coverage, and have a valid policy of automobile coverage on each of the vehicles used by the company. Taxicabs must display a card showing fares and rates, the name and photograph of the driver, and the name of the taxi company must be printed on each side of the vehicle. There are currently three taxi companies licensed by the city to carry passengers: Yellow Cab of Bloomington, Red Tire Taxi and E2taxi.

Kant said Uber does not have an office in Bloomington but does have one in Indianapolis.

James McLary, owner of E2taxi, is a 17-year member of the Limousine and Paratransit Association, which has started an initiative called "Who's Driving You?" that aims to educate potential riders on the issues surrounding ride-share services such as Uber.

"I'm not opposed to competition. Competition's fine," McLary said. "What I'm opposed to is illegal competition. They don't meet the requirements."

The city of Bloomington issued a cease-and-desist letter a few months ago to Uber co-founder and chief executive officer Travis Kalanick in San Francisco and Avram Rampersaud, Uber operations manager for Indianapolis, believing that the service would violate the city ordinance, according to Patty Mulvihill, an assistant city attorney.

While the letter has not been rescinded, it is also not being enforced. The city currently is reviewing legislation and litigation efforts regarding ride-sharing around the country "just to make sure we do right in terms of interpreting our ordinance and avoiding any unnecessary litigation," Mulvihill said."We're going through all of the legal defenses they've raised and vetting those arguments ... to see what exactly that implication is for the city itself."

Colorado was the first state to pass a law forcing ride-sharing companies to submit drivers to background checks, conduct vehicle inspections and provide proof of insurance under the oversight of Colorado'sPublic Utilities Commission, according to a Colorado Public Radio story. Virginia'sDepartment of Motor Vehicles banned ride-share apps in the Commonwealth in June, only to reverse the ban a month later. Legislation in Maryland to regulate ride-share companies under its Public Service Commission failed to pass in April. And last week, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn vetoed legislation that would have regulated ride-share services, to name a few states that have scrutinized such services.

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"We look forward to coming up with common-sense regulations that have to do with ride-sharing," Kant said. "We look forward to engaging with the city and talking about benefits Uber brings to a community."

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(c)2014 the Herald-Times (Bloomington, Ind.)

Visit the Herald-Times (Bloomington, Ind.) at www.heraldtimesonline.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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