Two drivers for the ride-sharing companies Lyft and Uber each received more than $1,300 in citations over the weekend after Madison police targeted them with a sting operation, authorities said.
The tickets mark a shift in how police are responding to the controversial companies, which have been offering rides to Madison customers for weeks despite the city saying they amount to unlicensed taxis.
Police officials said in March they could cite drivers or launch sting operations, but they also said doing so was not a top priority and that they hoped the companies would voluntarily stop giving rides. As Lyft and Uber stayed active, though, Capt. Richard Bach of the department’s traffic division said police and city officials decided citations were necessary.
“There needed to be enforcement action taken to send a message that the city was not going to tolerate their operation without licensing,” Bach said.
An Uber driver was cited Friday morning after a plainclothes officer used the company’s smartphone app to arrange a ride from the Westgate Mall on the West Side to the 600 block of State Street, Bach said.
On Saturday afternoon, a Lyft driver was cited for taking another plainclothes officer from a Near West Side hotel to the Dane County Regional Airport, Bach said.
Each received three citations totaling $1,317 for violations of the city’s taxi ordinances, police spokesman Joel DeSpain said, including a $691 fine for transporting passengers for hire without a license.
The Uber driver also was cited for an illegal U-turn made after the passenger was out of the car, DeSpain said.
Taxi companies and Mayor Paul Soglin have protested Lyft and Uber, saying they amount to unlicensed cabs that gain an unfair advantage by flouting local taxi ordinances.
Since they launched earlier this year, the California-based companies have claimed their service — matching people seeking rides with drivers using their personal cars — makes them “logistical” companies rather than cabs, which means they aren’t governed by taxi regulations.
Lyft spokeswoman Paige Thelen said Monday that the company still does not believe its service violates “any current city law.” Lyft will pay for its driver’s citations, Thelen said.
But the Madison city attorney’s office isn’t buying the companies’ claims, and in March issued a memo finding they constitute taxis and are violating city ordinances.
You have free articles remaining.
A group of city officials led by Ald. Scott Resnick, 8th District, has started work on a proposed ordinance that could allow the companies to operate legally. Any such proposal is a long way from becoming law, however. In the meantime, city officials and police have asked the companies to stop arranging rides in Madison.
“Our first intent was to get them to comply and stop operating until there could be something worked out,” Bach said.
When that didn’t happen, though, Bach said discussions between police, city officials and the mayor’s office turned toward enforcement. Soglin said it became important for “the credibility of the city” to enforce the taxi codes as drivers continued to violate them.
“When you get such a blatant series of violations in such a highly publicized area, it’s critical,” Soglin said.
Resnick said he was not shocked to see drivers cited, although he was surprised at how costly the citations were.
“I wish that we were able to follow closer to the legislative process to see if we could work out a compromise” before significant fines were issued, Resnick said.
This isn’t the first time ride-sharing companies have been ticketed in sting operations. Drivers for SideCar, a similar company not active in Madison, were cited for providing rides in Philadelphia and New York.
Both Thelen and Nick Anderson, general manager for Uber’s operations in Madison and Milwaukee, said they will keep working with the city on regulations for the companies.
“It’s unfortunate that backwards thinking and archaic laws, promoted by the taxi lobby, are restricting transportation options for Madison residents,” Anderson wrote of the citations.
Police are still encouraging Lyft and Uber to stop their services, although checks of the smartphone apps showed both companies had drivers available on Monday afternoon. If that continues, Bach said, last weekend’s stings might not be the last.
“There is a potential that there could be more enforcement action in the future,” he said.