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Uber 101: Why requesting a driver in Philly is super complicated

Complicated policy at both the state and city level stands between UberX and an amicable existence in Philadelphia.

Here’s a quick look at the state of ride-sharing in Philly:

What’s here now?

Uber currently operates its Uber Black service in Philadelphia, which is classified as a luxury limo-esque service in which drivers are required to buy a certain type of upscale vehicle, usually a Chrysler 300 or better. Only professional chauffeurs with a commercial license and auto insurance may operate these cars. Let’s call this Premium Uber.

UberX is a less-expensive version of the service (Budget Uber!) in which anyone age 21 or older with a car in good condition can drive. The fares are cheaper, but many of the drivers aren’t doing it for a living. UberX is all over the Pa. and South Jersey suburbs, and has been for months.

Lyft, the ride-sharing service that’s similar to Uber but adds pink mustaches to its cars, is staying away from Philly at this point.

I heard about Uber drivers getting arrested by cops on horses, what’s up with that?

UberX’s rollout in Philadelphia this weekend was interrupted by a Philly Parking Authority sting that included cops on horseback seizing Uber cars and levying $1,000 fines for six drivers who got their rides impounded. (The PPA’s since released those cars.)

PPA executive director Vince Fenerty said in a statement released Monday that the PPA will continue to impound cars and fine drivers if they’re caught operating an “illegal hack taxi service” in the city.

Wait, is UberX even allowed? Why is it operating here?

The rideshare company applied on Friday for an emergency temporary authority status with the Public Utility Commission, which kind of randomly oversees cabs everywhere in Pennsylvania except Philadelphia.

Both Uber and Lyft have been operating in Pittsburgh under the same kind of emergency temporary licenses that UberX sought for in Philly. However, two judges have recommended that the state should deny a request for a permanent experimental license that would span the state.

The Philadelphia Parking Authority, which oversees and regulates Philly’s taxis, argues the PUC doesn’t have jurisdiction in the city. The PPA is technically run by the state, with the majority of its board members appointed by the governor.

It began regulating cabs and limos in the city in 2004 after the state decided the PUC was doing a terrible job. (In 2004, the PPA thought it might make drivers wear coats and ties). The PPA says it should regulate UberX, too. And if it were up to them, the service wouldn’t operate in Philly — they say it’s a public safety concern.

So what are people fighting over?

Uber and Lyft ride-sharing services operated for some time in Pennsylvania (not Philly) with temporary authorization from the PUC, and most of that action was centralized in Pittsburgh. Once those 60-day temporary authorizations were up, the PUC re-authorized them for Uber and Lyft in Allegheny County, according to Jennifer Kocher, spokeswoman with the PUC.

There are a few legal issues with the services, including that Pennsylvania and a number of other states don’t have a law that outlines a regulatory agency. They’re not technically cabs, because you don’t hail them, but they’re not limos either.

In short, they’re not teeeechnically illegal – there’s no state law that bans them. But they’re also not legal.

State representative Mark Cohen, D- Philadelphia, was a co-sponsor for a bill that would have legalized UberX. He said politicians and agencies might fear that Uber could put too many cabs out of business, reducing the number of transportation options available to Philadelphia residents. His bill didn’t pass.

Philadelphia councilman Jim Kenney said the PPA has been overreacting, possibly so it can maintain its hold over cabs. It might not be able to have similar pull with ridesharing services.

Cab companies and cab drivers don’t want UberX because it they know it will take away their business. To operate a cab in Philadelphia now, a driver or the cab company must have a taxi medallion, or work for someone who does. Medallions are valued at around $500,000 (though two of them failed to sell at a recent auction) The owners of those medallions certainly don’t want UberX, either.

Will UberX and Lyft ever be “legal,” then?

The only things that can save Uber and Lyft services in Pennsylvania in a long-term sense would be changing the law. As it stands now, the state law doesn’t have a definition in place for the new companies, since they’re not technically cabs or limos. And because there isn’t a definition, there also isn’t a set-in-stone regulatory agency. The legislature left Harrisburg this session without passing a bill.

This story was updated at 3:30 p.m. Tuesday with comments from PUC spokeswoman Jennifer Kocher.

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