Wilmington eases taxi regulations to help industry compete with Uber, Lyft

Wilmington is down from 155 to around 40 taxis as Uber and Lyft have come to dominate the market. (Port City Daily photo/Williams)

WILMINGTON — Fearing Wilmington is close to losing its traditional taxi services, the city has relaxed some of its cab regulations to help the industry regain its footing. Operators within city limits will now be able to raise prices and extend the life of their vehicles, leveling the playing field with rival ride-hailing apps.

Back in 2005, the city expanded its availability of taxi licenses from 130 to 155. Those new openings were filled quickly. However, the number of cabs has fallen drastically since that peak due partially to the competition posed by Uber and Lyft. There are now around 40 licensed taxis serving a population of more than 120,000 as well as out-of-towners.

Pyramids Taxi Cab’s Mohamed El Henawy has presented twice to council in recent months on the crisis of cabs vanishing. He argues Uber and Lyft have an unfair advantage over the traditional taxi model. Their drivers face fewer regulations and benefit from surcharges and consumer convenience.

But it’s not just the taxi drivers suffering anymore: Customers are now paying higher prices for the services. Henawy shared a ride-hailing receipt Tuesday with council for a $97.11 trip from the airport to Leland on a Sunday night.

“This is clearly unfair and what he is saying is going to happen. Taxicabs will just go off one day, and we won’t have any,” councilman Charlie Rivenbark said following Henawy’s presentation, “and then we’ll be at the mercy of Uber, Lyft, what have you and what he’s saying is — he’s not dreaming it up — they can charge what they want to … I think the city needs a good healthy taxicab force.”

Nationally, Uber and Lfyt are dominating the market, but each have steadily raised their prices, as shown in recent studies by Rakuten Intelligence. The market research firm found prices for rides on the apps rose 92% between January 2018 and July 2021, and costs were up 40% this past April compared to the year prior.

Henawy suggests if the cab business dies out, more civilians who can’t afford ride-hail app’s steep prices will resort to the dangerous acts of drinking and driving or walking home.

“They’re going to put their lives at risk and people on the road at risk because they cannot afford riding with Uber if we vanish, if we completely disappear,” Henawy said, “which I sadly say is going to happen if we do not start to make [compromises].”

City Attorney John Joye explained the city lacks the authority to regulate the apps, but it can revise its fee schedule and city code for taxis. State statute allows cities to regulate “vehicles for hire” with permits.

“We have brought to council a modest ordinance amendment to loosen up some of those restraints on the taxicabs, help them out a little bit,” Joye said.

Council unanimously agreed to the proposed amendments to allow for a slight uptick in fees and add two years to the age that a cab is allowed to remain on the road.

The changes include a base rate increase from $3 to $4 and a raise in the price per mile from $2.10 to $3, or an additional 15 cents per one-sixth mile.

It also increases the wait time fee from $20 to $30, for when a cab idles somewhere at the request of a passenger.

Further, the permissible age of a taxicab is now 12 years instead of 10 years, though those vehicles are subject to heightened inspection requirements after the decade mark.

“Although that seems like a modest change, it’s allowing them an additional two years on those taxicabs,” Associate City Attorney Corrie Evans told council Monday during an agenda briefing. “They’re not having to purchase new vehicles quite so soon.”

The adjustments were penned in coordination with Henawy and other representatives of the cab community, Evans said.

The last time the city revisited its rates was July 2012, when the nightly surcharge went up from 50 cents to $1 and a maximum $100 taxicab clean-up fee (for when bodily fluids get in the cars) was implemented.

Before that, the last modification was to drop the rate in February 2009: an increase from $2 to $3.

The updates to the ordinance were purposely brought to council this November to take effect before the holidays, a time of significant demand for the transportation method. However, staff expressed, with more time, they were willing to continue looking into other options to help the industry, such as surge pricing, a minimum trip charge and a 15-year taxi life.

Attorney Evans indicated there are concerns about inflating the cost for passengers on fixed incomes, which would limit their ability to obtain transportation.

“These folks are impatient because they’re watching their livelihood drift away,” councilman Rivenbark said. “It needs to be done way sooner rather than later.”

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