Ride-sharing demand grows in NM as regulators debate stifling it

IN DEMAND: A member of the New Mexico Public Regulation Commission says 19,000 people in Albuquerque and Santa Fe have downloaded the smartphone app to use the ride-sharing company Uber.

By Rob Nikolewski │ New Mexico Watchdog

SANTA FE, N.M. — The fate in New Mexico of ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft is still up in the air, but judging from the number of people signing up as potential customers there’s plenty of demand for their services.

At Wednesday’s New Mexico Public Regulations Commission hearing, commissioner Karen Montoya said 15,000 people in Albuquerque and 4,000 people in Santa Fe have signed up for the smartphone app to use Uber’s services.

A spokeswoman for Lyft wouldn’t give out the company’s figures for New Mexico, saying only that “tens of thousands” of Lyft drivers in 67 cities across the country have completed “millions of rides.”

“We’ve had huge, enthusiastic support from the Albuquerque community,” Lyft spokeswoman Chelsea Wilson told New Mexico Watchdog. “The community has made it very clear they want more transportation options.”

But while Montoya quoted the figures, she also expressed concern that Uber and Lyft are picking up passengers despite not being licensed by the state.

“We have 19,000 people who potentially could be in harm’s way,” Montoya said during the meeting.

Uber and Lyft each say they have insurance policies in place to protect their drivers and the passengers they pick up.

“We actually have a very comprehensive insurance policy,” Wilson said, adding, “The moment (Lyft passengers) are matched with a driver … they’re covered by our $1 million primary liability policy.”

In the meantime, the ongoing regulatory battle over ride-sharing continued at Wednesday’s hearing.

On one hand, the commission will vote next week to begin the process of a “Notice of Public Rulemaking” that could carve out distinctions in the state’s Motor Carrier Act to allow ride-sharing companies to get licensed.

That process can be lengthy, but Montoya told New Mexico Watchdog after the hearing it can be sped up by making the notice an emergency measure.

But on the other hand, the PRC also decided to vote next week on whether to start enforcing financial penalties against Uber and Lyft.

“Why haven’t we fined them?” asked Commissioner Ben Hall. “We can fine ‘em up to $10,000 a day … I think these 19,000 are riding at their own risk.”

“We have to put our foot down,” Commissioner Valerie Espinoza said.

The PRC issued a cease and desist order against Lyft in May and voted 3-2 last month to deny a request from Uber for a certificate to operate as a “specialized passenger service.” But both services are still operating in the Albuquerque area, with Lyft saying its drivers are taking donations from passengers.

“We’re not anti-regulation,” Wilson said. “We believe in common sense regulation and those regulations have to prioritize public safety and consumer choice and there are ways to do that without stifling innovation.”

Ride-sharing works by allowing customers to download a free smartphone app, which they use to request a ride.

The app connects them to the nearest available driver and tracks the length of the trip in distance and time, calculates the cost and automatically transfers the fee from the user’s credit card (already entered into the app at the beginning of the process) to the driver’s account. No cash changes hands.

The battle over regulating ride-sharing companies have played out across the country, with ride-sharing fans accusing cab companies in cities such as Los Angeles and San Francisco of trying to wield influence to snuff out competition. In June, the Department of Motor Vehicles department in Virginia fined Uber and Lyft for not having “proper operating authority” to do business in the state.

But last month Colorado became the first state to authorize ride-sharing and eight days ago, the city council in Seattle voted 8-1 in favor of legalizing transportation network companies.

Contact Rob Nikolewski at rnikolewski@watchdog.org and follow him on Twitter @robnikolewski

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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