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Opinion: Springfield needs Uber yesterday

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Springfield can’t advance without Uber.

It’s a bold statement, but it’s an idea a recent vacation cemented in my thoughts.

Upon my arrival in Seattle earlier this month, I called an Uber. It picked me up at the airport within minutes and deposited me at my hotel. Easy peasy.

During the next five days, we came to rely on Uber for the majority of our transit. Think about that for a second. Seattle is one of the most public transit friendly cities in the country with options at every turn. It has a robust busing system, streetcars, underground transit, bike rentals on nearly every corner, Zip Car rentals on every other corner, taxicabs, a monorail and it’s extremely walkable.

We tested other methods, but still we chose Uber. It’s quick, it’s easy and it’s cheap.

As we flew back to the Show-Me State, hours of plane time left me wondering about the Springfield travel experience. What are your options when flying into Springfield? You can rent a car you might drive a few miles, catch a hotel shuttle, wait 30 minutes for a taxi or have a prearranged ride waiting.

Aside from the inconvenience, the lack of transit options portrays Springfield as small potatoes. I was reminded of my recent interview with Dr. Michael Swann, who equated the area’s dermatologist crisis in part to its lack of millennial appeal.

“Millennials want a way of life,” he told me last month.

Springfield attorney Britton Jobe told City Council in March young professionals expect Uber.

“I’ve been practicing law in Springfield for six years – it is difficult to exaggerate the importance to people in my generation to talent attraction and retention efforts in this community,” he said.

No wonder we have trouble attracting millennial workers. Uber is more than just a ride, it’s also a welcome. It’s a pair of open arms to your community. It’s a sign your city is modern, mobile and ready.

For the past several months, council has debated a bill regulating Uber in the Queen City, but as meeting after meeting passes, we still don’t have the ride-sharing service in our community.

I reached out to council Finance & Administration Committee Chairman Ken McClure to ask why.

“A lot of people support this and we want to do it,” he said. “We just have to make sure it’s the correct approach, the balanced approach.”

McClure is a self-proclaimed Uber supporter, having taken rides in other towns. He told me he’d love to catch an Uber in the Queen City, but things are a bit more complicated than just giving the San Francisco-based Uber Technologies Inc. the thumbs up.

It comes down to regulations, as it always does.

The committee  is once again weighing concerns about insurance, background checks, driver registration, safety and the effect on the taxicab industry.

Thirty-four states have approved regulations for transportation network companies – such as Uber and Lyft. Missouri is not one of them. That leaves regulation at the city level.

“How should we treat TNCs vs. taxis?” McClure said. “Current taxi regulations are onerous. Not only do they not make sense for Uber, but they probably should be streamlined for the taxi industry as well.”

Taxi drivers are required to register individually, with requirements such as passing a physical. But McClure says that model doesn’t make sense for Uber, a company that switches drivers frequently.

“You might have a guy drive for two hours, then never again,” he told me.

McClure believes it makes more sense to register the company, which then has oversight of its own drivers, with the understanding that because the company is city regulated, the city takes on a certain amount of liability.

“We would want them to know if we get complaints, like a drunk driver, we can discipline the company and the driver,” he said.

The delays are in the details.

While there is no doubt in my mind Uber has changed the taxi industry, from my experience in Seattle, it seems to be for the better. Rather than charging so much per mile, Seattle taxi drivers have divided the city into zones. Take a cab anywhere within your zone and it’s $5, one zone over is $7 and so on. It’s the taxi industry’s answer to an Uber system which gives you prices up front.

With Uber already active in Kansas City and St. Louis, it’s time for the state’s third-largest city to step up to the plate. Will Uber solve our millennial attraction problems or increase our convention business? No, but it’s a step in the right direction.

If Springfield wants to be taken seriously as a major player in the state, we need to start acting like one.

Springfield Business Journal Features Editor and Audience Development Director Emily Letterman can be reached at eletterman@sbj.net.

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