Tuesday, April 16, 2024

Wilmington taxi industry calls foul on ‘unequal law enforcement’ from city

Owners and drivers in Wilmington taxi industry say city's "Wild West" approach to regulation of the taxi and ride-share market is helping push taxi companies and drivers out of business.

Charlie Bell with Taxi Taxi Company said that Uber and Lyft drivers are crowding out areas in downtown Wilmington marked as taxi stands, and the police are doing nothing about it (August 23, 2018). (Port City Daily photo | Mark Darrough)
Charlie Bell with Taxi Taxi Company said that ride-share vehicles are crowding out spaces in downtown Wilmington marked as taxi stands, and the police are doing little to control the congestion. (August 23, 2018). (Port City Daily photo | Mark Darrough)

WILMINGTON — For Nick Hiteshew, owner of Wilmington NC Taxi, it’s only a matter of time before traditional taxi operations are run out of town by ride-sharing drivers from Uber and Lyft – and the city is doing little to stop it.

Hiteshew claimed taxi companies now face “unequal law enforcement” from the city and state, most significantly through one-sided regulations and through the unfair treatment of cabbies operating downtown. 

In order to park downtown in the curbside area that allows only taxis after midnight drivers must have a W number or a for-hire permit, as last weekend showed, the city is failing to keep this area open to taxis, Hiteshew said. 

“You couldn’t even get in there. It was bumper to bumper cars parked alongside the curb. And it’s that way every Friday, every Saturday night,” he said. 

Hiteshew also said taxi drivers are routinely stopped and harassed by police officers in downtown Wilmington and Wrightsville Beach.

Go out there on a Saturday night and you watch what goes on,” he said. “You’ll see the cabs as they come in to downtown; if they happen to stop in the road to let (passengers) out, the cops will blind them with their spotlights. Then you’ll see an Uber car drop off at the exact same time, same spot, and nobody does nothing about it.”

Jennifer Dandron, spokeswoman for the Wilmington Police Department, said the WPD is not biased against the taxi companies and their drivers.

“We are not targeting individuals or companies when we ask drivers to move along; it is to aid the flow of traffic and help keep downtown safe and walkable,” Dandron said.

Furthermore, she said the WPD has issued 122 taxi stand parking violations this year, totaling just over $3,000 in penalty fees.

Hiteshew said that many Uber and Lyft drivers also take “private cash runs, parking downtown without the street permits and commercial insurance required of licensed taxi cabs, then taking jobs while not logged into their ride-sharing platforms.

A lack of enforcement on the local level

“It’s like the Wild, Wild West – there is no real law enforcement when it comes to (Wilmington’s) ride-share market,” Hiteshew said. 

Dragan Zeljkovic, owner of Dragan LimoCab and an immigrant from Croatia, agrees.

If there are permits and regulations, it’s supposed to be for everybody,” Zeljkovic said. “I’ve ran a limousine and car service for 13 years, and then Uber comes in three years ago, and anybody can become a driver, and there is no regulation whatsoever. It’s a Wild West out there.”

Zeljkovic said the city doesn’t do anything about the regulations of the ride-share companies because those come from the state level – then-governor Pat McCrory signed a bill in September 2015 that regulated ride-share companies for the first time in North Carolina.

Dandron of the WPD confirmed that the “state allows the city to regulate taxis, but does not allow us to regulate ride-sharing services such as Uber or Lyft.”

Downtown Wilmington’s taxi stand spaces, reserved until 3 a.m. in the 100 block of Market Street. (Port City Daily file photo by Ben Brown)

Zeljkovic’s own friend is the City of Wilmington taxi inspector Blu Bluford, who is in charge of taxi permits and ordinances, and he recently brought the issue to him.

“I was telling him – I will be glad to renew my permits, but what are you guys going to do about all these Uber people driving without permits? That was my question to Bluford. But he said, ‘I can’t do anything. It’s all state regulated’ … He’s the taxi inspector, and he does what he’s told to do.”

Taxi-Taxi driver Charlie Bell, who has driven cabs for over forty years, was frustrated with the WPD’s lack of response when he handed over a “cornucopia” of photographs showing unlicensed vehicles parked in taxi stand spaces downtown after midnight.

“It makes it hard for taxi drivers to park and make a living,” Bell said.

Dandron responded by saying the WPD gives out citations for taxi cab violations regularly for non-taxi drivers parked in the taxi zone.

“We do not favor one over the other. We enforce the law equally and fairly,” Dandron said.

Safety concerns

Bell also noted that drivers’ background checks required of the two largest ride-sharing companies – Uber and Lyft – do not meet the standards of commercial taxi drivers.

“We’re checked out by FBI, have to take a urine test. Ride-share guys don’t,” Bell said. “You don’t know who you’re getting in the vehicle with.” 

This January, safety procedures for ride-sharing companies came under scrutiny in the Wilmington area. Allegedly, 72-year old Uber driver Gerald Smelson picked up an intoxicated 19-year-old woman from a Wrightsville Beach bar, drove her back to his house after she passed out, and recorded himself having sex with the woman.

In June, CNN published an investigation that found “rideshare companies Uber and Lyft have approved thousands of people who should have been disqualified because of criminal records.”

Hiteshew also said that Uber drivers routinely fill their cars over capacity, and when this happens, their Uber-provided commercial insurance is no longer void. This is especially unfair, he said, when compared to the $3,600 he must pay annually for his personal commercial insurance package.

For Mike Cottle, who leases his taxi from Riverside Taxi, he sees it as a losing fight.

“When Uber came into the picture and they weren’t regulated, I find it amazing that one of two things didn’t happen: that Uber didn’t get regulated and that taxis didn’t get de-regulated. And now it’s too late, because taxis are losing the fight. And there’s no way to save them now.”

Ultimately, Hiteshew said that paying for a city permit makes little sense nowadays.

“I could just go downtown, throw an Uber sticker in my window, and nobody would bother me,” Hiteshew said.

Mark Darrough can be reached at Mark@localvoicemedia.com

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