Any moment now, cars with giant fuzzy pink mustaches on the front grill may pull up to Tampa International Airport, offering rides to travelers who use the upstart Lyft car service for a — lift. Standing at the curb will likely be government transportation officers, ready to write up citations against those drivers, who the county basically considers “pirate” taxis.
Besides the dramatic pink mustaches that are the icon of Lyft, the showdown pits two powerful forces against each other — entrepreneurs versus the government and established taxi/limo corporations. San Francisco-based Lyft calls itself a ride-sharing system, and the service launched in the Tampa area on Friday at 7 p.m. Some established taxi and limo companies call it a threat to their existence.
People who have cars and can pass a background check can sign up to be Lyft drivers. People who need rides download the Lyft smart phone app, signal they need a ride, and then see potential driver profiles — photos and car models included. If there’s a mutually acceptable match, the driver picks up the passenger and Lyft handles all the financial transactions so riders are charged and drivers are paid.
Lyft recently started recruiting drivers in Tampa, and the Lyft service formally started Friday night with the following suggested “donation” rates: $1.92 per mile, 21 cents a minute, plus a $2.75 pickup and insurance fee. There’s a $5 minimum, so in theory, a ride from the airport to downtown might run about $19.34, though much of the Lyft sales pitch is the social benefit of meeting like-minded friends, if not during the car ride, then at the Lyft-sponsored driver/passenger parties around the country.
Lyft kicked off its Tampa opening Friday with a party at an Armenia Avenue former cigar factory, and though the company doesn’t disclose how many drivers have signed up so far, there were 60 Lyft gift bags on seats at the launch party/training event, and a dozen cars in the lot wearing pink mustaches.
“We’ll see how much I can make,” said Angela Lang, a coffee shop manager whose morning hours make her available for daytime driving. Some drivers she knows can make more than $1,000 on a busy holiday weekend. “But I like people, and it’s a great way to meet new people.” She plans on covering her Hyundai Hybrid with “Lyghtning Lyft” graphics because she’s a big hockey fan.
Hordes of similar venture capital-backed projects are springing up to help people become quasi-entrepreneurs and blend their business and personal lives — selling craft projects via Etsy, self-publishing books via Amazon, selling backyard-grown foods at farmer’s markets via the Square payment app, and renting out a spare room in their house to guests via Airbnb.
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On the other side of the issue, you have the Public Transportation Commission in Hillsborough County, established to regulate taxis, limos, tow truck drivers and others. Such agencies nationwide have staunchly fought against start-ups like Lyft, Uber and others, and the local PTC last year all but shut down Uber’s hopes of offering rides during the Republican National Convention in Tampa in 2012 — infuriating business-minded Republicans. Similarly, would-be electric car pickup services have also attracted the regulatory muscle of the PTC and been driven out of business.
“My understanding of Lyft and Uber’s model is not conducive to what’s in place in law,” said Kevin Jackson, interim executive director of the PTC, who added that his responsibility is to enforce the rules that Hillsborough County sets. “People may think it’s protectionism ... Well at the same time we make taxi and limo companies do things that are not profitable at all,” he said, such as require taxis to accept any passenger, regardless of the neighborhood, their race, gender or even the distance they need to go — even if only one block.
In theory, Lyft drivers could face a $100 penalty for picking up passengers, and law enforcement officers could technically make an arrest, but Jackson said such instances are “highly unusual.” More likely, he said, his officers would make a written warning. He notes the county will likely take up the issue of Lyft and Uber and others at its next monthly meeting.
As for why make such a big deal, “The PTC has a legal obligation to protect the safety of transportation service customers through regulation of transportation service providers,” the PTC’s letter to Lyft read in part, noting drivers must have commercial licenses, background checks, training, and pass vehicle inspections. A ride from Tampa International Airport costs about $26 in a traditional taxi, and any limo ride has a minimum charge of $50.
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Friday, Lang stood in the Tampa parking lot where dozens of Lyft drivers were gathering for their kickoff event, and several more experienced drivers brought in from other markets helped show local novices just how to attach the giant pink mustache to their cars.
“When I told my husband I was going to start picking people up for rides, he said “Well, OK, I have questions,’” she said. “But you’ll know who these people are. You see their Facebook profiles. They have to sign up with a credit card. And I don’t have to pick them up if they look spooky. I can just keep driving by.”
Conversely, passengers can rate drivers, personally and financially. After the drop-off, the Lyft system e-mails passengers a suggested “donation,” based on time and distance. Passengers can send an amount above or below that level. Then drivers can filter potential pickups to show only passengers with a history of donating above a certain amount.
For the Tampa kickoff, those passengers invited into the system have a two-week period of free rides, and if they sign up friends or family, they will as well.
“That’s the kind of environment we’re trying to create here,” said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, who counts himself as a big supporter of new projects like Lyft and Uber. A major city needs to innovate and attract young, digitally savvy people who want to change society, he said. “This is how the next generation wants to live, and we need to accommodate that and encourage that type of innovation and not be held hostage to the special interests that dominated and controlled the PTC for decades.”
As Lyft drivers take to the streets in Tampa, lawmakers in Tallahassee are lining up on both sides of the issue.
A measure backed by Tampa Republican Jamie Grant that’s favorable to those start-ups squeaked out of the House Economic Affairs committee Friday on a 9-8 vote.
“First-class cities deserve first-class service and Tampa is a first-class city,” St. Petersburg Senate Republican Jeff Brandes, who is backing a bill in the Senate, said in an interview. “We should be focusing on good service and not on preserving monopolies.”
Allowing Lyft or Uber into the market “would kill our business,” said John Finch of Sunshine Shuttle & Limousine in Panama City during a committee meeting Friday. Rep. Doug Broxson, R-Midway, was similarly disinclined to rewrite the rule book for new players and said during the hearing, “We expect fair play in every market in this state.”
While Lyft is launching service right away, Uber is taking a more nuanced approach, particularly after being booted out of the market at the RNC.
“Our focus is on the legislation, which is moving at a nice clip through the statehouse,” said Uber spokeswoman Nairi Hourdajian. Uber has an “Uber Black” service that recruits existing taxi and limo companies to use the Uber smart phone app system to find customers, and that service is operating in only one Florida market: Jacksonville. Uber also has an “Uber X” ride-sharing system that more closely resembles Lyft, and that is not operating anywhere in Florida yet, though the company is trying to recruit drivers. “We always test viability of new markets, and that includes Florida,” Hourdajian said.
As for Lyft, it is looking ahead to the next chapter, beyond the first day.
“We are in touch with city leaders in Tampa and look forward to productive conversations that prioritize public safety and allow for a path forward for ridesharing,” Lyft spokeswoman Paige Thelen said. “We’ve already seen a positive response from drivers and potential passengers who are excited to have another transportation option in their city.”
Includes reporting by James L. Rosica of the Tribune/Scripps Capital Bureau reported from Tallahassee.