Taxi drivers oppose MSP airport proposal on Uber, Lyft: What's at stake

Lyft driver picks up rider in San Francisco.
A Lyft customer gets into a car in San Francisco in January 2014.
Justin Sullivan | Getty Images

Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport is weighing new rules that could better accommodate ride-sharing services like Lyft and Uber.

But more than 200 cab drivers showed up at a Metropolitan Airports Commission meeting Monday night in Bloomington to voice their opposition to the plan. They said ride-sharing through smartphone apps like Lyft and Uber would have an unfair advantage at the airport, undercutting the taxi business, which includes 750 licensed airport cabs picking up about 1,800 fares a day.

What are the rules for ride-sharing now?

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MSP Airport already allows Lyft and Uber drivers to pick up and drop off customers at the airport. But those drivers aren't allowed to use the curbside lanes — which is where travelers would be picked up by a spouse or a neighbor — to pick up their customers.

Ride-sharing drivers are, according to airport rules, supposed to use the same commercial vehicle lane as limousines. Drivers picking up passengers in that lane are required to swipe a credit card and pay an airport fee — all before reaching their passengers.

It's complicated and inconvenient — and ride-share drivers don't typically bother, bypassing the commercial lane for curbside pickup.

In addition, ride-sharing drivers aren't subject to the same inspections and regulations as airport taxis.

"We do not regulate the individual cars or the individual drivers," said airport spokesman Patrick Hogan. "That becomes the responsibility of the transportation network company. So it's a very different business model.

"But in both cases, there would be fees that would have to be paid. With the transportation network companies, they would pay $3 every time they pick somebody up and $3 every time they drop someone off at the airport."

How would the airports commission proposal change the rules?

An ordinance proposed by the Metropolitan Airports Commission would set aside space for ride-share vehicles, streamlining the process and letting ride-sharing services offer curbside pickup.

But that allowance comes with a few strings attached, like fees and insurance requirements and background checks.

Why not just take a cab, if ride sharing is so complicated?

Ride-share customers say they like services like Uber and Lyft because the apps allow them to see their driver ahead of pickup, they have an idea ahead of time what the ride will cost, and they can tell if it will cost less than a taxi or limousine ride.

Passengers are also able to rate their drivers on these apps, so drivers may go out of their way to earn good ratings.

What's the taxi drivers' take?

Cab drivers told the airports commission Monday that they do good work, too, and are also highly regulated. They are trained and experienced. They said they have a well-established system for picking up rides of their own — at the taxi stand that everyone expects to find at an airport.

But the drivers pay a premium for it — more than $1,600 every six months — and they pass that cost along via their fares. The drivers also outfit their cabs and pay for a radio system that's monitored around the clock.

The cab drivers said regulations require them to pay that overhead up front. Ride-share drivers are able to pay their fees on a per-trip basis, around $3 or $4. Cab drivers also said that because ride-sharing drivers set their own schedules, they have the flexibility to skip bad weather and be available only at prime travel times. Cab drivers can't afford that choice.

Video: Edward Reynoso, of the Teamsters Joint Council 32, spoke on behalf of a newly formed airport cab drivers association that is fighting the proposal. Tim Nelson | MPR News

Are there any other factors at play?

Race came up at the meeting in addition to economics.

Gregory Kpowulu spoke on behalf of the more than 200 cab drivers at the meeting. At one point, he asked them to stand. These people would be the ones to suffer if the airports commission enacts the proposal, he said.

"I see 99.9 percent of black people," he said. "They're from Africa. They came here, just like how some of your parents came here, looking for opportunities to live in this country. And that's what they stand for. They want to work, and they don't want those jobs taken away."

What's the ride-sharing services' take?

Ride-sharing services say that the commission's proposal could diversify their workforce in other ways — making it easier for women drivers to get day work while their kids are at school, for instance.

"Sixty percent of our passengers are female, and 30 percent of our drivers report as female," said Bakari Brock, Lyft's airport operations director.

There were also retirees at the meeting who said ride-share services help them supplement their Social Security.

Supporters said cab drivers are free to leave the taxi business and start driving for Lyft or Uber. A number of former cab drivers at the meeting Monday night said they had done just that. Supporters also argued that this is the way the economy works: Technology can lower overhead, cut prices and help gain market share.

What happens next?

The airports commission has published a 25-page proposed ordinance and took more than three hours of testimony about it Monday night.

The MAC could make a decision about what to do about ride sharing this summer.