By now, it has been all over the news that the city of Orlando has cracked down hard on Uber, the alternative-transportation app that connects people looking for transportation with people who want to use their personal vehicles to drive others around. Uber, which is based in San Francisco and has financial backing from big investors like Goldman Sachs, Google Ventures and Menlo, began operating in Orlando on June 4, without getting city approval.
Earlier this year, Uber lobbied unsuccessfully in Tallahassee for a bill that would grant it the right to operate in Florida cities with exemption from vehicle-for-hire laws, which usually regulate fares, prohibit price surges, require cab companies to take multiple forms of payment and take phone calls for service. Uber’s pricing fluctuates, depending on demand. Users receive a price estimate via smartphone when they book a cab and the company only operates via the Uber app.
So it wasn’t terribly surprising to hear last week that the city was ticketing Uber drivers for operating without the proper permits. It was a little surprising, however, to hear that Orlando police had set up a sting operation to catch them in action, then towed their personal cars to keep them from continuing to drive for Uber. Of course, this also left drivers without the ability to use their cars for anything else, including to get to other jobs, pick up kids from school and so forth.
Uber driver Adam D’Angelo was one of the drivers who got caught up in the sting. He describes how it went down for us:
“I was making my routine Uber pickups around the greater Orlando area,” he writes to us via email. “I received a notification from a passenger needing a ride off Washington Street in downtown Orlando. He was standing outside the MegaBus stop with a female and suitcases. He approached my car and asked how much it would cost to go to Universal Studios. He claimed he was new to Uber and wasn’t aware how the pay structure worked. I was hesitant to answer, because I couldn’t give him an exact price. I estimated it would be $18, but I informed him that all payment calculations are done through the app and we could handle that situation upon arrival.
“Not even getting the chance to finish my statement, he pulled out his badge and asked if I knew the laws and regulations for transportation purposes in Orlando. I was caught off guard and was confused with the situation at hand.
“While the ‘passenger’ was informing me that I was violating the laws and regulations, a cop car pulled out in front of me and insisted that I turn off my car and put my hands up. At this point I’m under the impression that I’m going to jail. They did a sweep of my car for any illegal contraband, drugs or weapons and took photographs of my car for their records. After 30 minutes of standing outside my car, they cited me for not having a permit or proper certifications for transportation purposes in the greater Orlando area. As if that wasn’t bad enough, they impounded my car for the purpose of me not being able to Uber anyone once being released. The two citations cost $210 each and an extra $125 to get my car released.”
D’Angelo says that he contacted Uber to tell the company what had happened, and they told him they would back their drivers and cover the cost of tickets and impound fees, as well as “reimburse me for the time lost on the road.”
Natalia Montalvo, a spokeswoman for Uber, says the company is having productive discussions with the city of Orlando about enhancing the transportation system. Until they come to terms with Orlando, Uber plans to continue to operate, saying, “We support our driver partners and will cover any costs for misguided citations.”
Cassandra Lafser, spokeswoman for the city of Orlando, says that the city requires that transportation companies maintain insurance, perform background checks on drivers, operate 24/7 in all areas of the city and post standard rates in vehicles. “When a business violates our laws, we have an obligation to educate them and enforce our laws,” she says, adding that the city is “in the process of meeting with Uber to gather information about its business process,” as well as with “industry representatives to hear their views.” Then the city may make recommendations to alter its vehicle-for-hire codes. Until then, Uber drivers beware.