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Uber wheels turn: Start of alternative taxi service on Big Island officially rolling

Updated: 
March 18, 2017 - 9:05am

HILO — Ride-hailing phone app Uber has officially launched on the Big Island.

Smartphone users can now use the app to find drivers through the self-described “alternative taxi” service, which is available in 562 locations around the world.

As of 4 p.m. on Friday there was a 6-minute wait for a ride from the Hilo Farmers Market to the Hilo International Airport, with a fare quote of $12.60. The app showed two drivers available.

Drivers sign up for Uber on a freelance basis. The company began recruiting on Craigslist last week.

Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim met with representatives from Uber on Wednesday.

Kim told the Tribune-Herald Friday that he had discussed the importance of working with Uber as a potential solution to increasing accessibility for people in areas like Puna and Ka‘u.

“I did tell them that, you know, anything that will help this island with regards to the transportation problem, which is more (pronounced) than in other places because of the remote situation … and also the lack of a good transit system,” he said. “We were emphasizing that certain districts have more problems than others, outside of Hilo and outside of Kona.”

At the same time, Kim said he had stressed a need to include taxi drivers in the ongoing transit conversation.

“They will be concerned about (its impact) on their work,” he said.

Uber and fellow ride-hailing company Lyft have been on Oahu for about three years.

“It’s hard here because our local taxi companies are really doing great, and they provide a good service to the community,” Honolulu City Councilwoman Ann Kobayashi said.

Kobayashi introduced an ordinance last year that placed additional certification requirements on Uber and Lyft drivers, to try to “level that playing field.”

The ordinance went into effect March 15. It took about a year to develop and requires that all private transit drivers have third-party background checks, medical checks, and a Hawaii driver’s license, among other regulations.

“It was not an easy process, and not everyone’s happy about it,” Kobayashi said. “We tried to reach that common ground, that compromise area.”

“Uber and Lyft are fine, but we also wanted to protect our local taxi companies,” she said. “It was hard to find that balance; we didn’t want to seem anti-business.”

The bottom line, she said, was consumer safety: “Those that step into a taxi or an Uber, you want them to be protected.”

Kim said that Uber also plans to meet with members of Hawaii County Council in the coming weeks.

Email Ivy Ashe at iashe@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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