Uber in Milwaukee faces challenges from city government


Uber, a popular ride-sharing service that uses a mobile application to connect riders with drivers, launched in Milwaukee earlier this month, but it is creating a stir in city hall.

The argument over Uber, which is available in 29 countries, concerns whether or not it should be considered a taxi service. The discussion is not something that is unique to Milwaukee, though.

Two weeks ago, taxi drivers in Chicago sued the city for not being more strict with Uber and similar services. Uber struggled to expand to Portland, which the service said in July was due to “outdated local regulations designed to protect the taxi industry.” The service also struggled to expand in Miami due to similar problems.

Megan Spagnuolo, a sophomore in the College of Nursing, has already used Uber in Milwaukee, and said using it is more convenient than taking a traditional taxi service.

“I have it back home in Michigan, so I was very excited to hear when it came to Milwaukee,” Spagnuolo said. “It is so easy and convenient, not requiring you to worry about paying or tipping, as well as being able to see how close or far the cab is from your location. Overall it’s really great, and all my friends have downloaded the app and all love it.”

California established regulations on smartphone-powered ride-sharing services in September, and lawmakers in Washington, D.C. passed an act in 2012 to update regulations for new technologies such as Uber.

Milwaukee Alderman Robert Bauman said he thinks Uber is illegal, and he asked the city attorney to file a lawsuit against the service. Milwaukee City Clerk Jim Owczarski is also pushing the service to comply with Milwaukee’s regulations.

“We’re fairly confident, at least on the face of it, they are a cab,” Owczarski said in an interview with Fox6 Milwaukee.

Other taxi services spoke out that Uber is a company not registered in Milwaukee, and none of the drivers are licensed to be taxi drivers in the city.

Nick Anderson, Uber Milwaukee General Manager, insisted though that the licensing questions should not directly apply to Uber because the service is just responsible for the mobile application and connecting users to drivers.

“The question of licensing is really intended for a transportation company,” Anderson said in an email. “Uber is a technology company, not a transportation company. Uber is revolutionizing the way consumers have access to efficient, reliable, licensed and insured transportation in Milwaukee. Like OpenTable for restaurants or Expedia for airline tickets, Uber is a facilitator of a quality experience, but does not provide actual transportation service. ”

In D.C., the debate centered around the idea of whether the D.C. Taxicab Commission should regulate Uber as a taxi service, similar to the issue the company faces in Milwaukee.

In 1991, Milwaukee passed a taxi permit cap of 321, but existing taxi companies acquired all the permits, causing permit prices to skyrocket up to as much as $150,000.

Last year, the Milwaukee County Circuit Court issued an injunction preventing Milwaukee officials from denying taxi permits to qualified drivers, following a lawsuit from the Institute for Justice. In November, the Milwaukee City Council voted to award up to 100 new taxi permits in 2014.