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Will Ride-sharing Apps Make Cabs Come Tumbling Down?

Wilson Sayre

UPDATE: The Miami-Dade County Commission has canceled the May 19th workshop on ride-sharing, but most expect the meeting to be rescheduled.

There’s a big legal gray area in Florida when it comes to ride-sharing services like Lyft and Uber. Technically they’re operating illegally, but local counties have turned a blind eye to their operations, which in Miami are now hitting the one-year mark.

For a while, it looked like the Florida Legislature was moving forward with a bill that would have clarified the companies’ standing in the state. But with the abrupt adjournment of the legislative session last month, local municipalities are having to wade into the issue that has pitted entrenched taxicab drivers and associations against Lyft and Uber.

Credit Wilson Sayre / WLRN
Monica Pineda, left, at the end of her ride from Brickell to Miami Beach with her Lyft driver, Alex Figueroa, right.

Cheap and Convenient

Monica Pineda, a property manager in Miami-Dade County, had no idea her Lyft driver, Alex Figueroa, was operating illegally, that it was even a contentious issue. On her ride to Miami Beach, she said the possibility of the service going away is sad.

Her car was not working and her husband couldn’t pick her up at a friend’s house in Brickell.

“He said, 'Wait for me for an hour' and I said, 'No way, I’m not going to wait for you for an hour,'” said Pineda.

Turned onto Lyft by her kids, who she says use it all the time, Pineda requested a car on the smartphone app, and Alex Figueroa showed up two minutes later in his shiny, blue Impala.

“The cars are very nice, the people -- the drivers are amazing and you know when you have your app and you can see the picture of the person, the car, everything, it’s very convenient,” says Pineda.

Credit Wilson Sayre / WLRN
Alex Figueroa quit his job as a manager at IHOP to become a full-time driver for Lyft. He especially likes the flexibility his new schedule affords him.

For her and other ride-sharing customers, taxicabs are not seen as an alternative. They’d sooner drive or take the bus.

“I’ve been living in this city for 15 years, and I’ve never been in a taxi before,” says Pineda.

But this is the second time in a couple months that she’s ridden with Lyft. For her, it’s cheap but, mostly, it’s convenient.

Chelsea Wilson, a communications manager for Lyft, says taxis and ride-sharing are just not the same thing.

“It’s a fundamentally different model,” says Wilson. “Taxi drivers traditionally work about a 10-hour shift. Their cars are used for two 10-hour shifts. So, 20 hours a day. Eighty-five percent of Lyft drivers drive 20 hours a week or less.”

With these ride-sharing networks, drivers use their personal cars, passengers can track their incoming ride, payment is all done through the app, and you can see information about who is picking you up.

Credit Wilson Sayre / WLRN
Robert Rios is a third generation Cab Driver who’s driven in Miami-Dade County for about 25 years. He owns one of the 2,121 medallions, or operating licenses, in Miami-Dade County. Today, they can go anywhere from $200,000 to $300,000. For Rios, that investment was going to keep them afloat in retirement by renting the license out, a plan that's now on shaky ground.

  The Case For Regulation

To South Florida Taxicab Association President Diego Feliciano, what a Lyft or Uber driver does and what a taxi driver does is the same.

“If you dispatch a vehicle for Point A to Point B and it moves a passenger from point A to point B, you are dispatching,” Feliciano says. “It doesn’t matter whether you dispatch by telephone or later by radio and now by apps. There is no difference between what they’re doing and what we’re doing at this company right here where there’s an app.”

The distinction, or lack thereof, matters a lot when it comes to costly regulations that taxicabs have to comply with.

Taxicab drivers are full-time professional drivers: They can be booked in advance, their fares are uniform across all hours and are set by the county, new drivers must pass a five-day training course, they have to go through government background checks, and if they get in too many accidents they lose their license to operate.

The Broward County Commission took issue with the fact that ride-sharing companies aren’t held to similar standards.

Credit Wilson Sayre / WLRN
Diego Feliciano at the Super Yellow Cab offices in Miami. He's concerned about ridesharing and taxicabs competing on a level playing field.

“If they can’t pony up a few dollars for insurance, for background checks and for registrations then shame on them,” said Commissioner Stacy Ritter on the dais.

She says these companies are really profitable and can shoulder the costs of these sorts of regulations.

Broward County then passed an ordinance requiring the regulations Ritter mentioned and has proposed stiff penalties for non-compliant drivers.

And Uber and Lyft say they’re concerned that will discourage potential drivers.

“They’re simply not going to go through a really onerous, burdensome process," says Lyft’s Chelsea Wilson. “We stand very much behind the safety screening processes that we have in place.”

Next Steps

Next week, the Miami-Dade County Commission will be trying its hand at striking a balance between the taxis and ride-sharing services. It’s holding a workshop to figure out what to do about all this.

The public’s invited to add their two cents, and with that the commission will figure out a framework for how to move forward.

Despite the setbacks in Broward County, Chelsea Wilson from Lyft is confident something will be worked out in Miami-Dade.

“We've been able to work with nearly 30 cities and states across the country to craft new rules for ride-sharing,” says Wilson, “but we very much understand that this is new for a lot of communities.”

In advance of next week’s Miami-Dade Commission workshop, Lyft is holding its own discussion about the future of ride-sharing in South Florida Thursday in Miami. Lyft is offering to relay thoughts on the issue to the commissioners for those who can’t attend the commission's workshop.

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