A line of Uber cars parked in Montauk early one summer morning this year.
By Mara Certic
Uber, the ride-sharing mobile app service, suspended all operations in East Hampton Town last week, following a meeting with East Hampton Supervisor Larry Cantwell and code enforcement officials.
The meeting, which resulted in the company halting their East Hampton service, was called after over 20 Uber drivers were charged with unclassified misdemeanors for operating as taxis without the required town license over Memorial Day weekend.
Taxi law was changed in East Hampton over a year ago, Mr. Cantwell explained in a phone interview this week, to require operators not only to be licensed, but also to have a physical address within the town.
More than two dozen summonses were issued to Uber drivers a few weeks ago, who Mr. Cantwell said informed the town that the company had told them to go to Montauk and operate, and that Uber would pay all the fines they incurred.
“Clearly an effort was made to confront the town over the law that was adopted over a year ago,” he said.
The town’s taxi law, Mr. Cantwell explained, is detailed and has many stipulations. The law lists the many legal duties of cab drivers, which include: keeping the vehicle clean, maintaining a written record of all trips, not idling the engine for more than five minutes, and thoroughly searching for lost and misplaced items at the end of each fare. The legislation also requires the business name and telephone number to be lettered on the side of the vehicle, and states that the fares must be conspicuously posted in the cab and a copy of them must be given to the town clerk.
“We’re trying to insure through the licensing that the vehicles are safe and that there are some consumer protection elements in the law,” Mr. Cantwell explained.
Shortly after the company agreed to suspend all of their services within the town (which in a map they delineated as including a small portion of Shelter Island and all of Gardiner’s Island), the mobile app service sent out an e-mail blast to all of its riders, informing them that Supervisor Cantwell had banned Uber with “new rules [that] would require every single Uber driver-partner to have an office in East Hampton to continue to hold their license, which is impossible for our partners.”
“The purpose of this law is not singling out Uber in any way,” Supervisor Cantwell said this week. “They just don’t want to comply with the code,” he added.
The e-mail blast from Uber maintained that without their services, the people of East Hampton “will be unable to get reliable, safe rides in any part of East Hampton out to Montauk, effective immediately.”
With 230 legally licensed taxi operators within the Town of East Hampton, Supervisor Cantwell said that he had “no idea” what Uber’s implication was about the other taxis in East Hampton but said, “We are attempting to enforce our law, regardless of who the operator or owner is.”
According to their website, Uber still operates within the town of Southampton, where the taxi law does not require operators to have local addresses. Southampton Town Attorney Tiffany Scarlato said that the main difference between the laws in the two towns is the local office requirement.
Uber operators, she said, would still have to be licensed by the Town of Southampton to operate legally there. A representative from Uber did not respond to a request for comment by this paper’s publication.
Jen Garvey, chief of staff for Southampton Town Supervisor Anna Throne-Holst, said on Wednesday morning that she was unaware of a similar problem in Southampton Town, adding, “It’s a different situation in East Hampton.”
Supervisor Cantwell said that while this is an East Hampton issue, “Montauk is the center of the problem.”
In the five years that Tom Maira has worked for Montauk’s Moko Taxi, he’s driven over 80,000 miles in 6,000 hours, he said. While Uber has been driving in East Hampton since 2012, he said that he didn’t really notice many of their cars until this year. “Even last summer they were out here, but there were maybe like ten of them. It was more out-of-town taxis that were a problem then,” he said.
At the end of his Friday night shift over Memorial Day weekend this year, Mr. Maira said he drove through town. At 5:30 a.m.on Saturday morning, he counted at least 30 Uber cars parked in town with drivers asleep inside.
“They want to talk about safe and reliable rides, how about cleanliness?” Mr. Maira said, mentioning that a quick Google search brings up plenty of articles about the questionable behavior of Uber drivers worldwide.
“And maybe they are safe and reliable, but I don’t think they have cameras and who knows if their employees are screened,” he said, adding that those trying to work for Moko go through vigorous background checks and are often given feedback.
“It’s ridiculous that Uber tried to play the victim. You have 40 billion dollars – register your cabs, and run your business responsibly and legally,” he said.
“If other people are going to come out here, live out here, pay rent and be part of Montauk that’s fine, I don’t mind,” said Mr. Maira. “But I don’t like when people come from out of town, especially when they’re illegal, just to make money and then leave at the end of the weekend. It’s like a robbery.”