When Chris Wetherell gets off shift as a firefighter at Spokane International Airport early in the morning, he takes a long drive to his home in Spokane Valley. On his way, he opens up a Lyft app on his phone, throws a pink moustache on his car and picks up someone in the city looking for a ride.
Wetherell has been a Lyft driver since May and was one of the first five drivers to operate in the city. Lyft and its competitor Uber are ride-share companies that use phone apps to arrange transactions to transport passengers. But since Lyft and Uber arrived in Spokane, taxi companies have questioned their legality.
On Monday, the Spokane City Council is expected to sign a memorandum of understanding with Uber and Lyft that would approve their operation in the city. The council also is expected to pass an ordinance that lifts some regulations and fees on taxi drivers.
“This will make (Uber and Lyft) legal under our framework,” City Council President Ben Stuckart said.
The agreement does not impose any new regulations on ride-share companies beyond the procedures the companies already follow, Stuckart said, but it codifies those procedures. If a driver violates the terms of the agreement, they could be subject to penalties from the city.
Included in the procedures the companies follow are criminal background checks, driving history reports and an automobile liability insurance policy with a minimum single limit of $1 million.
Uber and Lyft also would agree to pay the city 10 cents per ride to cover any administrative and regulatory costs associated with the ride-share companies.
Councilman Mike Fagan said he heard complaints from taxi drivers that Uber and Lyft drivers wait outside bars to give rides home like taxi drivers do. The new agreement would make it a city violation for ride-share contractors to accept street-hails and would prevent them from soliciting outside of their digital platforms.
“We definitely want to make sure the Uber and Lyft contractors are well aware of the fact that if they want to be other than the taxi industry, then they’re going to be considered other than the taxi industry,” Fagan said.
Chelsea Wilson, a spokeswoman for Lyft, said the company has had a number of conversations with the city, and she applauds the City Council for crafting the regulations.
“Spokane has been a leader in this,” Wilson said. Many cities where Lyft operates have no rules or regulations about ride sharing, she said.
The City Council also is working to eliminate outdated regulations for taxi companies. One ordinance, for example, would allow taxis to use any certified mechanic in town, instead of the current law that directs taxis to use one of three specific mechanics.
The ordinance waives city fees for up to 60 days for taxi drivers, giving them a probationary period to decide if they want to be a taxi driver. Most rules, however, remain in place. For instance, cab drivers still would risk having their for-hire vehicle license suspended if they use tobacco products inside their cabs, use foul language that offends a passenger, wear open-toed shoes or don’t wear socks.
The city also is working to create passenger zones directly outside bars and banks downtown, Fagan said, making it easier and safer to track down cabs. The zones could not be used by Uber or Lyft.
Wetherell, the Lyft driver, said he understands why taxi companies would resist ride-share companies initially, but if the city loosens some of the outdated regulations on taxis, he sees them coexisting with ride-share companies.
“The whole taxi system needed to be reorganized,” Wetherell said.
Fagan said the city has “dragged its feet” in helping out the taxi industry in the past, and said Uber and Lyft coming to town has spurred the conversation in a positive way for both taxis and ride-share companies.
“We want to at least provide a little bit better level playing field so that the taxicab industry can flourish just as Uber and Lyft can flourish,” Fagan said.