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Uber and Lyft closer to serving Ashland

An ordinance to allow for-hire ride services such as Uber and Lyft to operate in Ashland was passed by the Ashland City Council on the first of two readings at Tuesday night’s meeting.

There may be changes made to the ordinance before the second reading. Although the council wants to negotiate with the vehicle-for-hire services, city Administrator Kelly Madding said it doesn’t seem as though the companies are willing to negotiate due to their international business models.

City staff was first contacted by an Uber representative in November last year after Medford adopted its vehicles for hire ordinance. The Uber representative, Jon Isaacs, recommended that Ashland adopt Medford’s exact regime to create a cohesive service area because drivers are often transporting clients between the two cities whether because of the airport, tourist attractions such as wineries or other attractions in the Rogue Valley.

But the Ashland City Council wasn’t inclined to match Medford’s rules. They want stricter rules, closely mirroring the safety measures of larger cities such as Portland and Seattle. The differences include requiring a criminal background check that goes back 10 instead of 7 years, requiring vehicle safety inspections, a limitation on the number of hours a driver may operate a vehicle within a 24-hour period, and a requirement to provide wheelchair accessible vehicles upon request.

A permit to operate a vehicle-for-hire service would be required in the city of Ashland, and already is required in Medford. The application fee is higher for agencies in Ashland.

According to Katrina Brown, assistant city attorney, there are 10 times the number of transportation network company (TNC) drivers in Medford than taxi drivers.

The application fee in Ashland would be $5,000 for TNCs, $500 for taxi and limousine companies and $60 for vehicle-for-hire drivers. The money would go to costs for administering the ordinance and to maintain streets used by drivers. The fee would be waived for all electric vehicles and vehicles that are wheelchair accessible.

Uber objected to the additional requirements not found in Medford’s model and the requirement to pay for a permit in both cities. Lyft objected to the 10-year background check and requirements for vehicle inspections.

It was recommended by staff to wait for a response from the TNCs before the second reading to confirm that these changes, despite their objections, will work.

Allowing TNCs to operate in Ashland has been met with mixed feedback from the community. Essentially, a vehicle for hire service allows an individual or company to use their personal vehicles, granted specific requirements must be met, to use as a taxi service at a lower cost than an average taxi ride.

On one hand, this update to the 20-year-old municipal code would bring Ashland into the 21st transportation century and place the town on the modern tourist map along with the other cities in Oregon that use TNCs — Portland, Salem, Corvallis, Bend, Roseburg, Medford and Eugene.

On the other hand, these large TNC corporations would compete heavily with local taxi-cab services and could threaten their livelihood.

The Ashland Transportation Commission suggested that council wait to deliberate until the Transportation Feasibility Study is completed in November; however, according to Deputy Director of Public Works Scott Fleury, in an interview earlier this week, not much information will be gleaned specifically about TNCs in Ashland. If the ordinance is passed now as it is written or with minor changes, the commission is agreeable.

Madding said the feasibility study will most likely provide a broad understanding of how TNCs benefit and don’t benefit communities. She also said that RVTD General Manager Julie Brown has been researching how to work alongside TNCs so that public transportation is supplemented rather than undermined.

Councilor Stephen Jensen said he’s in favor of this ordinance, especially because finding a ride home after overindulgence downtown for tourists, college students and the community can be difficult.

“Ashland has something I like to call ‘exceptionalism,’” Jensen said. “We don’t have to exactly emulate Medford, but I think we can come close by correcting a number of things. I just think there are ways to soften this and invite it to Ashland.”

Bill Langton, an Ashland resident and Uber and Lyft driver, said he supports passage of the ordinance and suggested a one-year review to the council which it agreed to adopt.

“I think this would provide a useful service to the community, tourists, visitors, as well as the (Southern Oregon Univeristy) students,” Langton said “We’re a world-class community here. We have the university, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, arts festivals, multiple film festivals, wonderful wineries, restaurants, etc. People want to get around the city of Ashland. One of the joys for me as an Uber and Lyft driver is to share our beautiful community with them.”

He said most people he picks up from the airport to bring into Ashland are dismayed when they learn they can’t use the services in town. He also mentioned that he is retired. One benefit for retirees of these services is that it’s an easy way to make some extra money.

Another public speaker, Heather Herbert, said she is also an Uber and Lyft driver and retired. She also said she’s been disabled for many years and has a trailer on the back of her car to transport scooters and wheelchairs.

“I’ve experienced many challenges in my life and I’m very sensitive to people who have disabilities,” Herbert said. “I am one that can provide transportation to people with mobility issues.”

She also made the point that she works mostly at nights, and that she feels safe as a disabled woman working nights.

Walter Derby, who also spoke during the public comment period, said he spent 35 years in the taxi industry and he’s against bringing Uber to Ashland because it would destroy the cab industry.

“Sometimes you need to slow it down,” Derby said. “You need to take care of your homeboys and your locals.”

Mayor John Stromberg shared his own experiences with Uber. He said he’s had pleasant experiences, but also been stranded in the snow and the cost of the Uber was three times as high during what the driver explained was a “surge pricing” period, when rates go up during periods of high demand.

“I think it’s a very interesting, useful service, but we need to be aware of what we’re doing going in,” Stromberg said.

Councilor Jackie Bachman said she’s received many emails from community members in support of allowing these services in town.

“I think the time has come to give it a try,” Bachman said.

Councilor Michael Morris said he wasn’t entirely comfortable to pass the ordinance, mostly due to disagreements about whether to require business permits and vehicle-for-hire permits or not, but the one-year review made the decision to agree to it “tolerable.”

The ordinance was unanimously passed to move forward to a second reading on a date yet to be determined.

Contact Daily Tidings reporter Caitlin Fowlkes at cfowlkes@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4496. Follow her on Twitter @cfowlkes6.

Uber driver Brian Savage drives to the Medford airport in February. Savage, who has a business license to drive for both Uber and Lyft, says his work provides income and a flexible schedule. Daily Tidings file photo