Local taxis navigate regulation, customer preference in competition with apps
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Tensions persist in the 1½ years since ride-hailing app Lyft joined Uber in Charlottesville, further altering the area’s transportation market.
In the first quarter of 2018, 50,000 people took at least one Uber ride locally, waiting less than five minutes on average for the vehicle to arrive, according to Uber spokesman Colin Tooze. Local taxi operators say this growth comes at an unfair advantage, thanks to exemptions from some taxes and regulations.
“Our government didn’t do anything about it,” said Will van der Linde, president of Yellow Cab of Charlottesville. “The attorney general just pushed it aside and gave them free will to come in.”
When Uber and Lyft first came to Virginia in 2014, they were met with a cease-and-desist order from the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles, which the companies defied. In 2015, the General Assembly passed a law that legitimized ride-hailing apps as transportation network companies.
Taxis are still much more regulated than TNCs, according to van der Linde.
“These businesses are running in our community and don’t have to pay a single dime [of local taxes],” van der Linde said. “All of our drivers are paying city taxes for all the roadways maintenance, whatever the city decides to cover.”
Tooze acknowledged that his company has a complicated relationship with taxi operators across the U.S.
“But in the long term, we think it’s good for communities to have healthy competition and for people to have choices,” Tooze said.
Cab drivers are required to obtain a commercial license and are regulated locally. Because ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft operate on a national scale, the companies provide these licenses for drivers who comply with the regulations of the drivers’ respective states.
“For example, it’s illegal to walk out and stick your hand up and hail an Uber,” Tooze said. “It’s dangerous and it’s not consistent with our business model. But you can do that with taxis”
Van der Linde said his company can only change its rates every 30 days, according to Charlottesville city code. Apps like Uber and Lyft can adjust their rates minute-to-minute based on real-time demand. Often, their prices are lower than that of cabs. However, riders on apps like Uber and Lyft can encounter surge pricing when demand is high.
Al Lagasse, CEO of the national Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association said members in less urban areas reported a minimal change in sales following the arrival of Uber and Lyft. Van der Linde agreed, saying much of his business comes from account-based rides rather than flag fares. More than a dozen cab and limousine services, including Yellow Cab, have contracts with the University of Virginia.
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Van der Linde says Yellow Cab is trying to focus on its strengths: medical transportation services and service to riders over 40 years old.
Ride-hailing apps have been criticized for failing to fully serve riders with disabilities. Uber recently launched a program allowing riders to request wheelchair-accessible vehicles, uberWAV, and Lyft lists partnerships with cabs for handicapped passengers on its website. However, neither program currently is operating in Charlottesville.
Ride-hailing apps also are attempting to expand beyond cars. Lyft recently announced it will follow Uber in providing bike-sharing services in cities, while Uber has invested in Lime, a dockless scooter and bicycle startup.
“We see ourselves as part of the transportation ecosystem in cities in which we operate and, in many places, people rely on Lyft for making first-mile-last-mile connections to transit,” Lyft spokesman Campbell Matthews said in an email. “We also partner with transit agencies in a number of ways.”
Juwhan Lee, assistant transit manager of operations for Charlottesville Area Transit, said CAT has looked into collaborating with Uber to transport passengers to and from a bus stop.
“I know other agencies across the country have [created that partnership],” Lee said. “We briefly discussed it, but I don’t think we’re there yet.”
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Van der Linde said the best course of action is for local, state and federal government to deregulate cabs.
“There are provisions for the safety of the general public that should be in place, but there is no reason we can’t operate in the same way,” van der Linde said.
Tooze said that, ultimately, taxicabs are simply different from TNCs.
“Taxicabs are operating a different business from TNCs, and they’ve advocated over the years for rules that work for them,” Tooze said. “They are free to seek changes to rule if they feel like [the current rules] are no longer serving them.”
Jeff Matriccino, a teacher in Albemarle County, has driven for Uber and Lyft in his spare time for about two months. He answers requests from both apps to maximize his earnings, which can exceed $20 an hour.
“I call it my side hustle,” Matriccino said. “Driving is something that I like to do. Now that I am off in the summer, or in the evenings when I’m not working, I can choose to do what I want — make money or not make money. I just like to stay busy, and it’s like bonus money.”
“It’s funny, I picked up a guy who was a taxi driver,” Matriccino said. “I said, ‘Do you feel any animosity toward Uber?’ And he said, ‘No. Not at all. Actually, I wish I’d thought of it.’”