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Uber In Burlington: Who's Making The Rules?

The City of Burlington and the popular ride service Uber continued to square off in an awkward dance this week – simultaneously working toward a future agreement and fighting each other’s current efforts in Burlington.

Shortly after the service launched in Burlington in October, City Attorney Eileen Blackwood said in a memo that drivers working for Uber (under contract – not as employees) are subject to the “vehicles for hire” regulations set out in city ordinance. That means anyone driving for Uber would need a city license like the ones traditional taxi drivers have or they could be fined for violating the ordinance.

Burlington’s City Council voted Monday night to move forward in consideration of an interim operating agreement between the city and Uber that would mean Uber drivers are no longer in violation of city code. Before the vote, Uber representative Laura Shen told the council about the Uber business model and the background checks and safety protocols in place.

Shen also said the service offers economic opportunity to drivers.

“One of the things that really speaks to me about Uber and why I personally work at Uber is it adds economic opportunity for hundreds of partner drivers in the Burlington area,” she said. “Last week we had top partner drivers who made over $1,400 in fares in Burlington on the Uber platform.”

It didn’t seem to bother Shen or the city council – which passed the interim agreement on for further consideration without a single opposing vote (Ward 2 Councilor Max Tracy wasn’t at Monday’s meeting) – that the “hundreds of partner drivers” in Burlington are violating city ordinance.

The fines for driving a vehicle for hire without the required license add risk to the economic opportunity Uber claims to offer drivers.

But according to an email obtained by VPR, Uber is removing the risk by offering to pay for tickets and any legal expenses related to drivers’ unlawful use of the service in Burlington.

Citing news reports about drivers being ticketed for giving rides using Uber, a driver who asked not to be named voiced concerns to a company representative.

“What do we do about this,” the driver asked. “I don’t want to drive if I’m going to get a ticket.”

Writing back from Uber, a representative named Matt said the company would foot the bill.

“As a reminder, we have your back 100%,” Matt wrote in an email to the driver. “Should you ever receive a citation as a result of your use of the Uber app, our team will pay for the fine as well as any necessary legal support.”

"Should you ever receive a citation as a result of your use of the Uber app, our team will pay for the fine as well as any necessary legal support." - Matt, Uber Representative

Despite the fact that the company is openly ignoring the city’s rules, elected officials seem eager to make the company feel welcome in Burlington.

“I don’t think it is a particularly strong concern of mine,” said Ward 7 councilor Tom Ayres. “We’re dealing with a new operating model here, a new option for our transportation system, that really in some respects falls outside the purview of the regulatory structure we’ve traditionally put in place. And it’ll be the charge of the license and ordinance committees over the next month or two … to really look at how we as a community are going to incorporate this new transportation model into our regulatory structure.”

Mayor Miro Weinberger said in a memo to the city council that companies like Uber are in line with his administration’s priorities of increased transportation options, a growing technology sector and less reliance on vehicle ownership.

The memo also noted concerns about Uber, including safety (debate is ongoing about whether Uber passengers are any more or less safe than passengers in traditional taxis), the disruptive business model and the “inappropriate statements to the media, and the combative approach with local and state regulators” in the company’s past.

Weinberger said in the memo that “to date, despite disagreement between the City Attorney and Uber on some questions regarding our taxi ordinance, our negotiations with the company have been professional and collaborative in numerous respects.”

The council voted to send the interim agreement with Uber to a joint meeting of the Ordinance and License committees. It’s expected to be back before the council for a final yes-or-no vote in late June.

Taylor was VPR's digital reporter from 2013 until 2017. After growing up in Vermont, he graduated with at BA in Journalism from Northeastern University in 2013.
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