Riders may hail an Uber or Lyft from Medford to Ashland starting in December, but whether they can get a ride back is still being determined by Ashland city officials.
Uber and Lyft, ride-sharing networks that allow riders to hail a ride using a mobile app, persuaded Medford City Council in October to allow their operations despite opposition from local taxi companies.
Now the companies are looking to tap into the Ashland market.
Uber representatives said if Ashland won’t allow its operations, the company would “put a fence around it and not serve the city of Ashland,” City Attorney David Lohman told the council at a study session Monday.
Mayor John Stromberg, however, questioned Uber's operations, saying it is “stepping over a number of lines.”
“(They have) done things that I don’t necessary feel I can fully trust,” he said. “It could be a real boom for the city, but I don’t think we should be steamrolled by them.”
To facilitate Uber and other ride-sharing networks, Ashland would have to update its taxi codes, which “are outdated in a number of ways” and don't allow ride-sharing networks, Lohman said. The city would also need to consider issues such as background checks, business licenses, fees and insurance requirements.
“Right now we don’t know much — we are looking for directions from the council,” Lohman said. “... And things could get complicated very quickly.”
Uber and Lyft representatives have met with city staff, said Adam Hanks, interim assistant to the city administrator. Staff also hopes to learn more about their business models as the networks begin operating out of Medford.
City Councilor Rich Rosenthal said he felt it was “an easy yes” to start exploring options with Uber and Lyft.
“We are dealing with the way of the future,” Rosenthal said at the meeting. “I think residents, particularly college students, are expecting this service and demanding it.”
Other councilors were more wary of the logistics.
“We have to write an ordinance that doesn’t lock us in too tightly,” Councilor Traci Darrow said. “Things are changing so quickly that we need to be open to what that might look like.”
“We need to do it thoughtfully throughout,” Councilor Dennis Slattery said. “I bet they will take that fence down really quickly once we approve the ordinance, but we need to make sure we do it on our time.”
Lohman said Uber and Lyft have suggested Ashland adopt an ordinance similar to Medford’s, which treats Uber and Lyft as taxi companies. Each network in Medford is required to pay $1,000 for a business license; individual drivers must pay $60; and the businesses must conduct their own background checks.
City staff also presented an option to levy a gross receipts charge, as Portland does, or a per-trip surcharge.
Councilor Greg Lemhouse said there’s an advantage in being consistent with neighboring cities to avoid having local drivers jump through hoops from one city to another.
“I can imagine that would be difficult to be an Uber driver in Ashland and then when you get to Medford, it’s a slightly different adjustment,” Lemhouse said.
Stromberg asked how the ordinance would address background checks for ride-sharing drivers.
According to Lohman, the Ashland Police Department currently conducts background checks based on fingerprints for taxi drivers, while a third-party background check company used by Uber and Lyft nationally wouldn’t have access to the same resource.
“We don’t know how in depth they go in their background checks,” Lohman said.
Uber and Lyft faced opposition in both Eugene and Portland. While Portland allowed the ride-sharing operation beginning in 2015, Eugene still remains Uber and Lyft free but has agreed to hold a study session on the topic.
Hanks said city staff hasn’t heard comments from taxi companies, but Rogue Valley Transit District is actively involved in the conversation with Uber and Lyft with an idea of a partnership.
Staff will come back next year with more information and a draft ordinance, Lohman said.
— Reach Ashland Daily Tidings reporter Tran Nguyen at firstname.lastname@example.org or 541-776-4485. Follow her on Twitter at @nguyenntrannn.