Tensions between Hoboken’s taxi drivers and the paid Uber ride sharing service boiled over during a City Council meeting on Dec. 16 when one cabbie lashed out with accusations the city is “slacking” and not regulating Uber. The ride sharing app allows users to summon a car with the click of a smart phone and is cutting into the local taxi business.
Uber has so far been able to skirt some safety laws that taxi drivers must follow, such as insurance requirements. The city of Hoboken has issued tickets to Uber drivers, yet at the same time has welcomed the company’s local headquarters and vocally supported the service.
Last March, the New Jersey Assembly Transportation Committee passed a bill to monitor “transportation network companies” like Uber and Lyft. The bill has yet to be voted on by the full Assembly. In practice, the bill would establish stringent insurance and safety requirements for such companies, such as requiring state police fingerprint background checks.
Before a driver can hit the road, Uber does a multi-level background check going back seven years to inspect county, state, and federal court records, and checks databases like the Terror Watch List and the Sex Offender Registry. But the fingerprint background checks, which Uber does not conduct in New Jersey, would ensure that a name-based search wouldn’t miss a criminal record filed under an alias.
However, fingerprint background checks only report arrests but not convictions, which groups like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) have publically referred to as “racially discriminatory” since some arrests may be driven by prejudice.
Still, Lionel Leach, the president of Communications Workers of America Local 1039 which represents taxi drivers, said that Pennsylvania and New York City legally require fingerprint background checks. He said cab drivers won’t be satisfied until Hoboken enacts ordinances that address such inconsistencies to create an “equal playing field.”
Protest followed by an outburst
Uber says its drivers make more than 100,000 trips per month in Hoboken, involving nearly 40,000 passengers.
Although Uber says it hopes to thrive in the Garden State, Local Union 1039, which represents approximately 400 taxi and limo drivers, rallied outside the Hoboken Terminal in November. Taxi and limo drivers held signs that said “Uber is unsafe!” while chanting “Uber must go!”
The issue isn’t new. Mayor Dawn Zimmer has said any changes to municipal laws would come after the state acts, but that she would be “open” to exploring legislation if the state fails to act soon.
Following the more recent meeting, City Spokesman Juan Melli only said that the mayor “declines to comment.”
“When you have an outburst like that and all of you don’t self-police and stop him, your whole argument just went down the tube.” – Michael Russo
“[They are] abusing the [expletive] out of us here. You talk about how you want to care for the people of Hoboken. Well I can’t tell. I can’t tell,” he said, while pointing to council members.
“Sir, we have a process,” Bhalla said as the outburst continued.
“Oh process, you and your process,” John retorted. “I think you guys are slacking and bull[expletive]. That’s what you’re doing.”
Moments after the driver’s departure, 3rd Ward Councilman Michael Russo said the manner in which he went about expressing his concerns was one of the reasons the taxi and limo driver community can never get its point across.
“There [are] a lot of things this gentleman said,” he said while pointing to Leach, “that I agree with. But when you have an outburst like that and all of you don’t self-police and stop him, your whole argument just went down the tube.”
Leach later told The Hoboken Reporter that the man was not in the union. “While I don’t condone what he did, I understand his outburst because this is the level of frustration,” he said. “Enough is enough.”
Uber, here to stay?
Maria, a taxi driver who is part of the union and declined to provide her full name, criticized Mayor Zimmer’s attendance at Uber’s recent headquarters opening on Washington Street. She called it a “slap in the face.”
At the time of that ribbon-cutting, also attended by Bhalla, Zimmer said, “As the most transit-dependent city in the country, Uber provides many Hoboken residents with a valuable transportation option.”
In response to Leach’s comments, Craig Ewer, spokesman for Uber in New Jersey, said that the bill considered over the summer (A-3765) is designed to drive Uber out of New Jersey with provisions that require the Uber drivers to pay more for insurance on top of existing policies, “while taxi owners to continue to enjoy the lowest insurance requirements in the nation.”
“Every single Uber trip in New Jersey is covered by $1.5 million of commercial liability insurance – more than 42 times what is required of taxis under state law,” said Ewer. “Instead of driving more than 13,000 jobs out of New Jersey, Trenton needs new fairer regulations that support the widespread benefit Uber has already brought to the Garden State in the form of economic opportunity and safer streets.”
After the meeting, Bhalla told the Reporter, “Our interests in Hoboken are to work with all stakeholders towards a level playing field that promotes competition and provides the highest level of service to Hoboken’s residents.”
Steven Rodas can be reached at email@example.com.