Explainers

Uber, and why you can’t get one in Syracuse, explained

Daily Orange File Illustration

Ride-hailing services, such as Uber and Lyft, are illegal in Syracuse and throughout New York state, excluding New York City.

UPDATED: Jan. 13 at 10:52 p.m.

New York remains one of the few states left in the United States to not have passed some form of statewide ride-hailing services regulation.

New York state Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Monday announced his new legislative proposal on how to change that. A leading lobbyist group quickly fired back at Cuomo saying the proposal isn’t good enough.

Ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft have found global success, spread across the United States and revolutionized the transportation industry. But they still remain illegal in upstate New York and the battle over legalization is fierce. Ride-hailing services are legal in New York City, however, and have been operating for years.

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Lucy Naland | Presentation Director

A bill to make the services legal everywhere in the state died in the New York State Assembly last June.

And since then, Uber and Lyft have stepped up their lobbying efforts, aggressively campaigning politicians to approve the services statewide. New York’s 2017 legislative session began last Wednesday, Jan. 4, and the issue is expected to be a prominent point of discussion and debate once again.

The politics are complex, with different groups such as taxi industry associations and labor unions opposed to ride-hailing services moving into upstate areas and cities such as Syracuse.

What are ride-hailing services?

Ride-hailing services are similar to taxi services, in that passengers can call for a vehicle to take them to a destination of their choice.

Services such as Uber and Lyft, unlike taxis, operate entirely through a mobile application. To use Uber, for example, passengers must download the Uber app and set their location to request a ride. An Uber driver — which just about anyone can sign up to be — then picks up and transports the passenger.

Uber and Lyft also offer ride-sharing options. For discounted prices, passengers can choose to share their ride with another rider, something that typically isn’t offered with taxis.

What happened with the bill in June?

The bill was sponsored by Republican Sen. James Seward of the 51st district of New York state with six Republican co-sponsors and two Democrat co-sponsors.

John McDonald III, an assembly member of the 108th district of New York state, said last June in an interview with The Daily Orange that he would expect the bill to become law by the start of 2017, while also noting he thought it could happen sooner.

The Senate and Assembly, however ended up disagreeing over how much insurance coverage should be required for ride-hailing service drivers. S.04108 was pushed through the Senate on June 17, the last day of session. Its Assembly equivalent A.08195 stalled.

Former Syracuse University Student Association President Aysha Seedat was outspoken with her support for ride-hailing services in upstate during the 2015-16 school year, drafting a letter to send to the Assembly before the 2016 legislative session. Syracuse Mayor Stephanie Miner has also called for the services in the state.

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Lucy Naland | Presentation Director

What has happened since then?

According to a report by New York state’s Joint Commission on Public Ethics, Uber was one of the top 10 clients for lobbyists from January to June 2016. Uber ranked eighth with $752,974 in total expenditures. Lyft reported paying its lobbyists $190,000 from January to June 2016. Ride-hailing lobbying continued throughout the second half of 2016.

The JCOPE report on lobbyist activities from July to December will be released sometime this January.

Uber also ramped up its publicity campaign. In October, the company had nurses in Albany and Syracuse give out free flu shots. The Buffalo Bills and Sabres announced a partnership with Uber in December.

Cuomo was featured in a $1 million Uber television ad campaign over the holidays. There was also a word Cuomo hoped to have the ride-hailing issue addressed in a special session of the legislature before the new year, but the session didn’t take place.

What did Cuomo say?

Cuomo’s speech in Buffalo on Monday focused on the benefits he thinks will come with allowing the companies to operate upstate, one example being less drunk driving. A press release published soon after his speech laid out a proposal that requires ride-hailing services to perform background checks on drivers. It does not, however, mention of mandatory fingerprinting for drivers. Fingerprinting has been a highly debated possible regulation for the industry in New York and across the country.

The proposal also outlined a requirement for drivers to get insurance coverages that are double the current auto insurance limits in upstate New York and have a limit of at least $1 million dollars of coverage when going to pick up or transport a passenger.

A new bill regarding regulations, separate from Cuomo’s proposal although similar, was introduced by Seward to the Senate Rules Committee on Monday as well, according to The Albany Times Union. The bill, like the governor’s proposal, requires background checks for drivers. The bill does not require mandatory fingerprinting.

The opposition to legalizing ride-hailing services statewide has continued over the last few months. The contentious Upstate Transportation Association has been leading the charge. John Tomassi, the association’s president, warned in a statement it would be “reckless” for lawmakers to consider legislation that does not include mandatory fingerprinting for ride-hailing service drivers in upstate New York.

According to the JCOPE, although the Upstate Transportation Association filed a report about paying lobbyists from January to June 2016, the registration status of the report is still processing, so the exact amount they paid lobbyists is not available to the public.

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Lucy Naland | Presentation Director

What’s the controversy with ride-hailing services?

Essentially, those who oppose ride-hailing services believe they aren’t required to play by the same rules as taxi companies.

Opponents have argued that if ride-hailing services were to operate in New York state, they should have to supply their drivers with auto insurance and workers’ compensation, a type of insurance that provides workers with wage replacements in the case of work-related injuries.

Uber and Lyft, unlike taxis, do not typically provide their drivers with workers’ compensation since its drivers are considered independent contractors.

The bill that passed through the New York State Senate would have required ride-hailing services to provide their drivers with insurance, but the text of the bill makes no mention of workers’ compensation.

Additionally, opponents have also pointed out that ride-hailing services often have lesser background checks than taxis, which they say make the services inherently less safe. Uber, for example, does not conduct fingerprint checks of its drivers.

What comes next?

Ride-hailing regulation statewide will be a priority for the governor. Whether that impacts the legislature is yet to be seen, with relations between the two branches of government at a new low.

Both politicians and lobbyists will be busy over the next few months as the debate continues over legalizing ride-hailing services statewide in New York.

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