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Councilmember Mike O'Brien speaks at Monday's meeting.
Councilmember Mike O’Brien speaks at Monday’s meeting.

A majority of the Seattle City Council voted on Monday to approve a new regulatory framework for transportation startups like UberX, Lyft, and Sidecar.

But there was one councilmember who stood up and voiced concern with the new legislation that sets requirements for the startups, also known as Transportation Network Companies (TNCs).

Mike O’Brien does not think the city’s lawmakers have spent enough time vetting an ordinance that came out of an negotiation process brokered by Mayor Ed Murray and included stakeholders from the taxi industry and TNCs, in addition to city leaders.

On Monday, O’Brien first filed a motion to have the city’s Taxi and For-Hire Regulation Committee re-examine the revised ordinance. That failed 7-2.

Later in the meeting, O’Brien introduced amendment “J,” which would have required the TNCs to provide exclusive insurance coverage at all times while a driver is active on the app. He expressed worry about TNC drivers being covered during the potential “gap” — when the drivers are logged into their apps, but not picking up or dropping off a passenger.

O’Brien spent several minutes explaining his issue with insurance requirements.

uberx“I want to make sure the public is not at risk while we figure out how this works,” he said.

His amendment was voted down, though, 5-4. After Monday’s meeting, O’Brien penned a long blog post further defending his stance.

“I could not in good conscience support the bill that introduces major policy changes with absolutely no public process and that undermines existing state insurance regulations set in place to protect public safety,” he wrote.

In terms of the insurance issue, O’Brien is concerned that the TNCs will not cover a driver during that “gap,” nor will a driver’s personal insurer.

“The TNCs claim this is not commercial activity and so the driver is covered by her/his personal insurance,” he wrote. “The problem is that insurance companies say that being on the app is commercial activity and that personal insurance does not cover any action a driver takes while active on the app, passenger or no passenger.”

O’Brien, who said he had a letter from insurance experts that supported his amendment, on Monday alluded to the six-year-old who was killed last year by an Uber driver in San Francisco and noted that he didn’t want to have the same problem occur in Seattle.

The Seattle City Council on  Monday voted 8-1 to approve new TNC regulations.
The Seattle City Council on Monday voted 8-1 to approve new TNC regulations.

But Uber Seattle general manager Brooke Steger said Monday that O’Brien’s stance “represents a fundamental misunderstanding about how insurance works.”

“There will never be a time when anyone has less than $300,000 of insurance coverage,” Steger said. “That is what the city and state dictate as necessary.”

Councilmember Sally Clark, who headed up the Taxi and For-Hire Committee — which O’Brien also sat on — said she appreciated O’Brien’s concern. But Clark also noted how the TNCs agreed to up their insurance standards during the mayor’s negotiation process for that “gap” to meet minimum commercial insurance requirements that the state requires.

In his post, O’Brien brought up other problems, including: Questions around the new medallion system, which gives property rights for taxi owners; the 10-cent fee that TNCs will be charged to help subsidize wheelchair-accessible taxis; and the new law that does not require taxi, for-hire or TNC drivers to install security cameras.

“We have no real basis for understanding what the real safety implications are for getting rid of security cameras,” he wrote. “But by accepting this bill today, we have lost the opportunity to engage in this debate.”

The security camera concern is also something taxi drivers aren’t too thrilled about.

“The cameras deter criminals and provide evidence,” Joe Blondo, a 26-year taxicab veteran of Seattle, told GeekWire. “And as far as I know, we have a more dangerous job than police officers. This is why it’s so questionable that Mayor Murray is doing this while running a public safety campaign in Seattle. Everybody but the cab drivers, huh?”

Finally, O’Brien also shed light on why, perhaps, his fellow councilmembers felt more pressure to approve the new regulations yesterday. In short, the TNCs were prepared to submit an initiative if the new ordinance did not pass through City Council on Monday — one that O’Brien said would “favor their bottom lines.”

From his post:

I think it is incredibly unfortunate that we are here today with massive pressure to pass a bill that I would hazard to guess few of my Council colleagues have read all 113 pages of. This massive pressure comes in the form of a threat of an initiative from the TNCs. These multi-billion dollar corporations told the City of Seattle that if we didn’t simply rubber-stamp this deal today without any scrutiny, we will face an initiative that writes the law to the sole favor of their bottom lines.

And we feel this pressure because we know that a TNC-backed initiative would likely pass for two reasons. The first is simple and it is why the Seattle City Council became the first municipal government in the country to legalize their operations: people in Seattle want the service that the TNCs provide. The second reason we think their initiative would pass is because of the simple fact that they have nearly unlimited resources with which to put into a campaign to win at the ballot in November.

You can read O’Brien’s full post here. In the meantime, Mayor Murray signed the legislation into law today:

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