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Uber Black Gets License To Operate In St. Louis

(courtesy of Uber)

Uber has made it to St. Louis.

The Metropolitan Taxicab Commission on Tuesday approved a license for the company's "Black" service, which allows people to use a cell phone app to call for an already-licensed premium sedan. It works much the same way as the apps that many area cab companies use for reserving taxis.  

Two and a half months ago, the region’s taxi commission changed its regulations to accommodate Uber -- changes that had taken months to negotiate.

All the haggling was worth it to make sure the company was operating legally, said MTC chairman Louis Hamilton.

"Now it’s up to them to grow their market. There’s plenty of opportunities with the taxi commission, we’ve given them plenty of room to grow. Now they have to fill that vacuum."

Uber has no firm launch date for the Black app in St. Louis, said Sagar Shah, the company's general manager for the central region. But he said that anyone who drives one of the 119 premium sedans on the road in St. Louis will make more money if they join Uber.

"What Uber provides is the flexibility for these drivers during their down time, to flip on the Uber app and create rides for people when they otherwise would not have been driving at all," Shah said. 

The license approved Tuesday would also allow Uber to dispatch taxicabs, but Shah told the commission that the taxi business was not part of the company's business model in St. Louis right now.

The vote to award Uber its license was unanimous. However, members of the commission raised questions about the handicap-accessibility of the vehicles that Uber dispatches, and wondered whether drivers would be willing to go to under-served areas of the community.

Meanwhile, outside the commission's headquarters, a group of drivers who own their own vehicles but are forced by MTC rules to work for other companies staged a small protest. They were calling the license for Uber unfair.

Their attorney, Drew Baebler, said the commission has had a moratorium on new cab companies for years because regulators believe the market is at capacity. That means his clients can't go work for themselves, and instead must pay to drive for established companies like Laclede Cab or Harris Cab.

Independent taxi drivers and Uber execs on October 7 2014
Credit Rachel Lippmann I St. Louis Public Radio
Members of the Independent Taxi Drivers Association and their attorney meet with Sagar Shah and Kenny Tsai (at right) of Uber.

 "They're increasing competition by giving Uber this CCN [the license to operate]," Baebler said. "Why should Uber be allowed to come in when these St. Louis citizens who have been doing this for 20-plus years are not allowed to run their own companies."

Hamilton, the MTC chair, said the so-called independent taxis misunderstand what Uber 's license allows. There will be no new taxis on the road, he said, and while the commission authorized 26 new licenses for premium sedans, the commission has received only 10 applications.

Follow Rachel Lippmann on Twitter: @rlippmann

Rachel is the justice correspondent at St. Louis Public Radio.

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