DENVER — Frustrated and angry, more than 100 cabbies pulled up outside the Colorado Statehouse early this legislative session to protest tech startups known as ridesharing services.
The taxi drivers say the emerging firms, which allow passengers to hail rides with the swipe of a smartphone, are avoiding costly requirements that they and other commercial drivers are forced to follow.
Ridesharing company officials say they’re open to regulation and point to self-imposed controls such as criminal background checks as proof of their willingness to cooperate. They’re also pushing back, saying critics and protesters are only trying to suppress competition and legislate them out of business.
The dispute in Denver mirrors similar fights playing out across the nation as state lawmakers and city government officials consider how to regulate emerging Web-based businesses that provide a service similar to that offered by traditional cab and limo companies, but under a distinctly different model.
“You know, change isn’t easy,” said Colorado Democratic Rep. Cheri Jahn. “But sometimes it’s time to move forward.”
The companies use mobile apps that connect passengers to drivers, often everyday people seeking extra income by picking up fares as they commute or run errands. Passengers pay through the app and can even tip electronically.
One well known firm, Uber, operates in more than 70 cities around the world, offering everything from quick rides to luxury service.
Another, Lyft, has become known for pink mustaches on front bumpers and does business in more than 20 U.S. cities.
Neither has publicly released financial figures or user statistics.
“There’s all kinds of ways to avoid costs, which goes to the corporate bottom line,” said Al LaGasse, CEO of the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association. “But is that really in the public’s interest?”
The ridesharing companies say they welcome regulation, but not thinly veiled attempts to shut them out.
“We’re open to having a conversation on how to create a permanent home in the regulatory scheme,” said Uber spokeswoman Nairi Hourdajian. But plans that have “the clear intent of eliminating choice for consumers and opportunities for drivers are not the way to go about this.”
Public officials have to sort out topics including insurance, background checks and pricing.
The Colorado plan passed a vote of the full Senate on Friday, but it faces more hurdles. The measure would designate ridesharing firms as “transportation networks,” separate from taxi and limo services. Insurance has become a flashpoint after authorities said a 6-year-old girl was killed in a crosswalk by a driver logged into the Uber app in San Francisco on New Year’s Eve. The girl’s family said in a lawsuit that Uber is financially responsible since the driver was waiting for customers. Uber says it isn’t liable since no passenger was in the car. The case is pending in state court.
Gary DiGiorgio, 59, from suburban Denver, became an Uber driver to supplement his income. “We, as Americans, need to go ahead and respect freedom of business,” he said.
But for cabbies, the issue is one of fairness. “We’re not afraid of competition,” said Mohamed Abdi, 32, a Yellow Cab driver in Denver. But “we all have to play by the same rules.”