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Monday, Oct 15, 2018
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Anyway, the other day I really needed a Lyft

The other day, I met just about the nicest guy I’ve ever met in Tampa. Theodore. He’s a Lyft driver, and he took me to work one day when my car was with the mechanic.

He’s a grandpa and said he became a Lyft driver because schools are cutting back on funding for music training. “I want my kids to learn to play an instrument,” he said. “So I’m doing this to pay for their music lessons.”

I’ve taken several trips recently on Lyft and Uber and, to me, nothing tells a news story in the same way personal experience can. You need to try something new to fully appreciate how well it works.

Right up front, let me say the whole debate over Lyft, Uber and taxi regulations is now at a fever pitch, and reasonable people disagree. “Ride-sharing” drivers tell me they just want to earn extra money and say they can offer a better service. Taxi and limo drivers say they follow the rules and it’s unfair for upstarts to take business away by operating illegally and without proper insurance.

People on all sides, including the taxi regulators, say they hope a deal can work this all out. In the meantime, let me tell you about my own completely nonscientific, nonexhaustive experience on a few rides.

Ride No. 1: My car was in the shop, and the second I handed my keys to the mechanic I fired up the Lyft app on my phone and requested a ride. Instantly, the app showed a driver was on the way and just eight minutes out. The app showed Theodore’s smiling face and a photo of his car. I could even watch the little car icon on a map roll its way to me. My opinion, that’s a huge advance over most taxi companies, where a dispatch operator says to trust them, a car is on the way and will get there — at some point.

When Theodore arrived, I jumped in the front seat — as you’re expected to do with Lyft — and he offered a water bottle and gum. He had no idea I was a reporter, but I wasn’t trying to be sneaky, so I told him I’ve written a lot about Lyft and Uber lately. He said that’s fine, and he told me about his kids and the music lessons and everything. There was no pink mustache on the car, which Theo said was part of avoiding the taxi inspectors who are roaming town, handing out tickets. Sad in a way; the pink mustaches always seem to make people happy.

The 1.3-mile ride to work took just four minutes and cost $5. I could have walked, but it was 150 degrees or so. For Theodore, half the reason to drive for Lyft is meeting people. It keeps him out of the house, and he just relishes the conversations, learning about other people’s lives. “A lot of this is about making a connection to another person,” he said. “You see, we just made a connection today.” Theodore is a classical-music-listening gentle soul of a guy.

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Ride No. 2: Since I needed a ride back to the mechanic after work that day, I took Uber. Fequiere showed up in just a few minutes. Uber seems to be more businesslike. (You tend to sit in the back seat.) And Fequiere was a nice guy, but he got mixed up with the one-way streets downtown. Can’t blame him, though. More than a few people I know just throw themselves into downtown and keep making turns on one-way streets until they end up at the Amalie Arena or the county building or the Hilton.

We drove through the University of Tampa to avoid downtown traffic, and Fequiere said, “I was one of the first to sign up for Uber here.” He’s avoided the taxi police, so far. He understands the controversy but thinks industries such as taxi services desperately need improvement. Our trip took just 11 minutes and cost $6.52.

Ride No. 3: So, my other car went into the shop and I was stuck way north of town. (As reporters say, “One might be a fluke, two is reason to investigate, and three is a trend.”) My driver, Fiona, sent me a text to make sure she recognized me, and I texted back the exact corner where I stood. Superhandy. (Lyft sends you a driver’s cell number so you can keep in touch, particularly if you leave something in their car.)

Fiona offered a gift box of mints, gum and candy. “I drive to help when I have an unexpected expense for me or in the family,” she said. We’ve both lived in big cities, and we traded stories of taxi rides of yesteryear. For some reason, her iPhone showed a different route than my iPhone, which we chalked up to Siri being insane, and we picked the shorter route.

A big part of her business is picking up totally plastered college kids on South Howard Avenue on weekend nights. Lots of ride-sharing drivers tell me they can make several hundred bucks in a busy weekend. Our trip took 19 minutes to go 6.5 miles and cost $13, with tip.

To me, modern capitalism has a spectrum of regulation, with things such as flying airliners on one end (highly regulated) and kid’s lemonade stands on the other (not regulated, but sometimes harassed by homeowner associations). Most everything else in business falls in the middle. Tattoo parlors, dance instructors, food trucks, roofers.

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Drawing a line on what needs regulation and what doesn’t instantly creates conflict.

If you hire a lawn service, it may have a contractor’s license. If you hire the kid next door to mow your lawn, he probably doesn’t. Now if that kid teams up with his school buddies and builds an app where customers can order “MowingOnDemand,” does that require regulation? What if lots of people start signing up and the kid goes into business by just taking a small fee from each transaction? Leaving aside the question of “regulation,” you might want that kid to sell you an equity stake in the startup before the initial public offering.

Airbnb started almost as a joke between broke graduates in San Francisco and now has a multibillion-dollar valuation. The “Air” in the name literally refers to an inflatable air bed the guys had in a closet that they started renting out for other broke techie graduates to crash on while in town. Now Airbnb is a global success and they’re freaking out local governments that rely on “bed taxes” from regulated hotels. Things get a bit — political.

I’ve made the point before that Internet businesses years ago “disrupted” major nonregulated industries: music, movie, retail. Now we’re in a new phase where startups are disrupting regulated industries. Airbnb, Lyft, Uber. Craft beer entrepreneurs are blowing up the business model of industrial beer production and distribution. Tesla is selling direct to car buyers instead of going through car dealers. Craft liquor distillers are spinning up operations, too, and let me tell you, if you want to see a highly regulated industry, take a look at liquor distilling and sales. It’s Orwellian.

Make your own beer at home, you have a drink. Make your own whiskey at home, you have a prison term.

If you want to see what’s next up in that disruption phase, here’s a suggestion. Take a ride on Lyft or Uber or a few taxis and see what they have to say about it. You’ll get an earful and maybe a mint and candy, depending on your driver.

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