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From (L to R): GCLA President Rich Azzolino, Music Express CEO Cheryl Berkman, Commonwealth Worldwide CEO and NLA leader Dawson Rutter, and GCLA lobbyist Gregg Cook inform attendees at the annual GCLA Expo about the critical challenges posed by TNCs. Photo taken Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014, at Promenade and Gardens, Costa Mesa, Calif. (Kevin Haegele/LCT)
COSTA MESA, Calif. — The limousine industry on Sept. 23 heard its boldest and most blunt rallying call to date against Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) from two longtime CEOs pledged to what one called “a long, rocky road” to regulatory fairness.
Cheryl Berkman, CEO of Los Angeles-based Music Express, and Dawson Rutter, CEO of Boston-based Commonwealth Worldwide Chauffeured Transportation, lit up the annual Greater California Livery Association annual Expo Tuesday evening with some straight tough talk on TNCs. Both run some of the largest chauffeured transportation networks in the nation, and have worked in their respective companies since the 1980s. Berkman is the daughter of the late “NLA founding father” Harold Berkman, who started Music Express in 1973, while Rutter began his limo service in the early 1980s after working as a cab driver. Rutter also serves as a board director of the National Limousine Association, and Berkman is a former one.
“The TNCs have hit this industry with such force that it has knocked us [around],” Berkman told attendees, which included operators from across California and a handful from the East Coast and Canada. “This is a killer in our industry. . . You need to sit down and buckle up because we are in for a long haul.”
Rutter cited sobering statistics that show the growth of TNC vehicles. New York City, where Commonwealth also has operations, now has 9,600 Uber-affiliate vehicles, up from only 500 this time last year. About 350 are being added per week. In San Francisco, 65% of the taxicab industry has been idled due to the growth of TNCs, which are not regulated, licensed and vetted to the same extent as limousine and taxicabs. The loss of taxicab service has serious consequences for people who are poor, elderly and/or disabled, as their access to ground transportation diminishes.
Much of the success of Uber and TNCs stems from outright deceptions, Rutter said. “The TNC issue is one of information. We need to get more information out to the public. When people realize it’s a public safety issue, they will realize they are in danger when they get into those vehicles,” he added, citing multiple cases of TNC accidents, criminal drivers, price gouging, and legal violations.
“The TNCs are not truthful with the drivers or the public about what’s going on,” said Ruttter, citing extensive disclaimers from Uber that absolves them of many of the responsibilities and safety liabilities common to other forms of ground transportation. “Uber is manipulating the people.” He pointed out how when Uber was challenged about their all-exclusive disclaimer, the company quickly changed its wording to assume a shred of responsibility.
Berkman and Rutter spoke in front of an outdoor evening garden party in Costa Mesa seated in plush white lounge chairs on a stage, creating an atmosphere that was part talk-show, part tent-revival. Hosted by GCLA President Rich Azzolino, the TNC panel drew an unusually large crowd that stayed seated and attentive longer than usual for such open-air networking events, and elicited several engaging questions and comments afterward. The Expo drew more than 310 registered attendees overall.
Berkman and Rutter called on all limousine operators of all fleet sizes nationwide to become informed, engaged and active in the overall national campaign for equal regulations between TNCs and limousine operations. They offered the following practical approaches and options: