The ride-sharing service Uber X won an experimental license Thursday to arrange private rides throughout much of Pennsylvania, a victory that came with a warning "to abandon its anarchist ways" and comply with state regulators.
The state's Public Utility Commission said the taxi industry needed innovation, but it called Uber X's two-year license a "last chance" for the company--which once defied an agency cease-and-desist order--to cooperate.
"Innovation alone is no excuse for ignoring the law, any more than a new and innovative way to rob banks should be encouraged and condoned," said PUC board member John H. Cawley, who reluctantly voted yes.
The 4-1 vote will allow the smartphone app-based service to provide cars in the Pittsburgh area and across much of the state, but not in Philadelphia, where the city's oft-feared parking authority regulates taxis.
The Philadelphia Parking Authority has been sparring with Uber X drivers, impounding cars and issuing $1,000 fines. The agency considers them unlicensed cabbies because they do not have taxi medallions, which can run as much as a half-million dollars.
Uber has muscled its way onto taxicabs' turf across the country, sparking similar controversies in Las Vegas, Chicago and Miami as regulators try to decide how, or if, the company should operate. The taxi industry, meanwhile, has fought back to try to protect its drivers' livelihoods. Critics have complained that Uber is skirting safety, insurance, pricing and other regulations.
"The rules and regulations out there, they were built decades ago," Uber X spokesman Taylor Bennett said this week. "We've been trying to craft new regulations that actually apply to this business model, that welcome more choice into the city, and give people opportunities to start their own companies."
The company started about four years ago in San Francisco and now operates in 230 cities worldwide. In Nevada, Uber X has faced fierce opposition from the state's huge taxi industry, and some cars were impounded in state stings. A judge last month, though, refused the state attorney general's attempt to shut down the service.
The Pennsylvania license covers everywhere but Philadelphia and a few counties excluded from Uber's application: Beaver, Clinton, Columbia, Crawford, Lawrence, Lycoming, Mercer, Northumberland and Union.
Bennett said the company hopes to work with Pennsylvania lawmakers and regulators "to get the details right" and continue to offer ridesharing.
Riders use Uber's smartphone app to seek out independent drivers using their own cars. Uber does not own the vehicles or employ the drivers but instead "partners" with them and takes 20 percent of their earnings.
The Uber X service started in Philadelphia in recent weeks despite failed talks to win approval from Fenerty's agency. Uber has been paying the drivers' fines, Bennett said.
"Uber has no license to be here. They're operating as hack cabs," parking authority director Vincent Fenerty said Wednesday. "If the Legislature changed the law, where people could ride-share, and set the proper guidelines ... the PPA would abide by (that)."
The cheaper Uber X service is a recent addition to the company's array of services. "Uber Black" and "Uber SUV" drivers have been operating legally with limousine licenses for about two years in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and elsewhere.
"Let me put it in plain English, Uber," Cawley said. "This is your last chance with this commission ... to abandon its anarchist ways and to finally become a responsible, lawful corporate citizen."