Photo by Caroline McNally

Late last month, Minister for Transport Paschal Donohoe had some visitors: a team from the taxi app Uber. Up for discussion were the company’s apps, their new Centre of Excellence in Limerick, and, of course, UberPop.

If you’re not familiar with UberPop, that might be because it hasn’t come to Dublin yet. It’s a ride-sharing service that lets anyone with a driver’s licence and a car give lifts to passengers in exchange for money. Right now, ride-sharing for money is illegal in Ireland.

The question now is whether that might change.

A spokesperson for Uber said the company currently has no plans to launch UberPop in Ireland.

But it seems to have been scouting out the possibility. “At the meeting Uber briefed the Minister on … Uber’s future plans including the development of its ride-sharing service,” said a spokesperson from the Department of Transport’s press office.

Donohoe welcomed Uber’s investment in Limerick, where it employs 300 people. He also noted that that unlike other countries, Ireland’s taxi and hackney market is open. Since the meeting, he has begun to examine the issues surrounding Uber setting up its ride-sharing app here, said the Department of Transport’s press office.

Would he consider a change in legislation to allow it? “The Minister and officials undertook to examine the issue further, bearing in mind the legislative and regulatory issues that may arise,” the press office said in an email.

No Legislation, No UberPop?

For car drivers in need of a bit of extra pocket money, UberPop could be attractive. Plus, it drives down costs for passengers.

“By sharing the costs of your trip, riders get around town for less and drivers benefit from lightening the burden of car ownership,” the company said, when it launched in Warsaw.

But at even the sniff of an UberPop entrance, there’s already vocal opposition.

Dublin city councillor Gary Gannon, of the Social Democrats, who flagged up that the meeting took place, has called on Donohoe to block any plans Uber has to set up its ride-sharing app in Ireland.

Gannon, who is running in the same constituency as Donohoe in next year’s general election, says this will protect jobs in the taxi industry, as well as passengers.

He doesn’t appear to be worried about any change in laws to legalise Uber’s ride-sharing app. He is more concerned about laws being ignored. The minister has to ensure the law is respected and upheld, he says.

UberPop on the Sly?

Uber is currently involved in a handful of court actions around Europe.

In Paris, UberPop continued to operate for six months after it was banned by the French government. The app ceased operations after Uber’s French directors were arrested and demonstrations by French taxi drivers became violent.

In Denmark, the company has been fined and is currently under investigation, suspected of operating services illegally.

Tim Arnold, the general manager of taxi app Hailo, said he has “confidence that National Transport Authority (NTA) and the minister will do the right thing and maintain current regulation”.

There are plenty of taxis in the city already, he says. There are 16,500 registered taxis in Ireland, roughly 12,000 of which are in Dublin.

UberPop is currently banned in France, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Italy and Belgium. The governments of Croatia, Bulgaria and Romania all moved to make UberPop illegal before the company even set up there.

Ireland’s Taxi Regulation Act 2013 makes charging more than the cost of fuel for ride-sharing illegal, though it doesn’t specifically mention Uber.

What About the Passengers?

In the US, Uber has faced some regulatory difficulties as well, but has overcome them. After only five years in operation, the company is worth $51 billion, according to the Wall Street Journal.

When Washington DC authorities began to crack down on Uber in 2012, the company’s users began a campaign in support of the company. After local politicians were bombarded with emails, Tweets, Facebook messages and a petition, the service was legalised despite the protests of cab drivers.

For passengers, it would appear Uber presents a wonderful opportunity with UberPoP providing a cheaper alternative to licenced taxis.

Sometimes, perhaps. But this isn’t necessarily the case.

“As far as I’m concerned Uber doesn’t offer the same safety as other operators,” says Jerry Brennan, who was was the general secretary of the National Irish Taxi Association until it dissolved last year.

He had a hand in crafting the 2013 law, and was conscious of UberPop at the time. “We tried to safeguard the public from this development,” he says.

There are hoops that taxi drivers have to jump through to get their licences: Garda checks, meter checks, vehicle-standard checks, exams and public liability insurance.

These measures are all in place to ensure that customers aren’t endangered or ripped off, Brennan says. “Those things would disappear if Uber had their way,” he says.

It’s not true to say that Uber doesn’t have any checks though. According to the company it inspects drivers itself. “UberPOP drivers are independent individuals we’ve personally vetted and selected after putting them and their vehicle through the most rigorous and in-depth background checks,” the company said, when it launched in Warsaw.

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