A Lyft for Albany?

lyft app screenshots

Screenshots from the Lyft app. / images: Lyft

Officials from the taxi-app company Lyft were in Albany recently to meet with city officials.

Matthew Peter, chief of staff for Albany mayor Kathy Sheehan, told us this week that representatives from Lyft had been in for a meeting "about two weeks ago." Peter described the meeting as a "very generic introduction" and said Lyft was currently in the process of introducing itself to cities. He said the Sheehan administration is looking into the topic and doesn't have a position on it.

"We're talking to cities across the state to see if there's a need for increasing safe and affordable transportation options," Lyft spokesperson Chelsea Wilson said to AOA this week when we asked about the meeting. "And we've heard that people want options like Lyft."

Lyft -- and competitors such as Uber -- have become key players in the taxi ride market in many cities around the country, all while pushing against what the companies say is outdated regulation and critics charge they're using unfair advantages.

New York State

The only part of New York State in which Lyft currently operates is New York City. It operated in Buffalo and Rochester for a few months last year, but ended service there in July after the state raised objections to the company's insurance situation. (Lyft's operation in Rochester had also faced a possible speed bump after the city informed the company it would have to comply with local regulations.) It then started service in New York City with commercial drivers in order to comply with current laws and regulations. A company blog post said it would be working to "align New York State's insurance laws and regulations with emerging technologies of the 21st century." [Buffalo Business First] [Rochester D&C] [Capital] [Lyft]

That effort appears to have resulted in legislation recently introduced in both the state Senate and Assembly. The bills would allow group insurance policies for "transportation network companies." It would also set definitions and regulations for these companies -- among them background check requirement for drivers, and a prohibition on cars picking up people who haven't requested a ride through the app (so, no "street hails"). And it would not require vehicles participating in such systems to obtain for-hire or commercial registrations.

The bills have been referred to committee in both chambers.

What exactly is a "transportation network company"?

Lyft is basically a service that connects riders with drivers (and their cars) via a mobile app. (UberX is Uber's version of the service.) California's Public Utilities Commission decided in 2013 that these sorts of services differed enough from traditional taxi services that they should get a new label -- the "transportation network company" -- and issued a set of rules for them. Those rules included provisions related to state licensing, driver background checks, inspections, and drug/alcohol policies. [CPUC]

As you might expect, traditional taxi companies haven't been pleased that this new category of competitor has popped up. A cab company official in LA complained to NPR in 2013 that these companies are basically offering the same services as a taxi, but don't have to follow all the rules. And last fall the companies won legalization in Washington, DC over the objection of local taxi services. [NPR] [WAMU]

Zooming out a bit, Lyft and Uber are both part of what's been described as the new "sharing economy," in which companies facilitate flexible, on-demand transactions between people who need something (a ride, a place to stay overnight, an errand run, etc.) and individuals who have that thing (a car, an apartment, time to do that errand, etc.) AirBnB is another prominent example (which has encountered its own regulatory friction). [NYS OAG]

These sorts of companies have been hailed by some as innovators. But skeptics have argued these services are actually about shifting risk from the center (the big corporation) to the edges (individuals) of a system. And in the case of the transportation companies, there have been questions about whether the drivers involved are employees rather than independent contractors. [Washington Post] [Slate]

These questions haven't stopped the companies from growing. Uber is said to have a $40 billion valuation, and Lyft has raised more than $800 million in venture capital. [NYT] [Crunchbase]

Local demand

There's another angle to the potential arrival of Lyft and similar services here in the Capital Region, one that could have a big effect on demand for the services: there is apparently strong public sentiment that current taxi service in this area is often bad.

That's not exactly news, but the issue has gotten more attention lately because the Albany Convention and Visitors Bureau has been surveying the public about taxi experiences since last November. And many of the responses have been harsh.

Survey responses provided to AOA this week by the ACCVB include complaints about dirty cars, unclear fares, unreliable service, and rude drivers. Here are the comments that were passed along (they include a few compliments, too):

ACCVB Taxi Report Comments 2015-04-01



Similar complaints prompted a small local campaign to attract Uber to the area about a year ago.

Officials have previously said the state of local taxi service concerns them because it's often the first interaction many visitors have when arriving in the area. Also: taxi service can be an important part of the transportation picture for people who don't have cars or can't drive.

Schuyler Bull, the director of marketing for the ACCVB, told us this week the org recently met with local elected officials about working toward a regional approach to the taxi issue that could span the area's many municipalities.

A service such as Lyft or Uber would provide a different sort of option in the local taxi market -- and potentially competition that could shake things up. In cities such as DC, LA, and Chicago the success of Uber and similar companies has prompted taxi cab commissions to work on creating their own ride-request apps. [Next City]

Comments

I hope the Lyft thing comes through. If there is one word I had to choose to describe this area's taxi service it is "embarrassing." I can recall so many occasions where I have felt unsafe during my ride, have been hung up when I called for a ride, or even stood up for a ride I called for. It's downright disgusting. I would readily trust a stranger picking me up before I would trust Albany's taxi service.

Please, please, please come to Albany! Nowhere else in the world have I encountered such unreliable, dirty, inconsistent, and overpriced taxi service as I have in the Capital Region.

Albany needs Lyft or Uber, the current cab situation is really like something from a third world country. I can't think of any worse first impression for a visitor to this area than getting into a cab. We're the state capital and supposedly a growing high tech hub, we should be able to do better than this...

I can only hope Lyft (or similar) finally comes here.

Lyft and Uber are great, but there's major insurance issues with them in NYS with the given insurance laws which is why Lyft drivers in NYC are forced to have commercial policies.

In a regular situation, if your car gets hit by a taxi in NY, you can subrogate against the taxi policy for any medical injuries that result due to taxi's negligence. You can't do that with a Lyft or Uber vehicle bc they aren't a registered livery vehicle.

For Lyft and Uber drivers, any accidents go on your insurance and if you seriously injure someone, it's your assets the injured person will be coming after. Lyft and Uber will NOT help, they're qualifying themselves as a technology company and will let you hang out to dry.

https://www.policygenius.com/blog/insurance-secret-uber-doesnt-want-know/

Having said all of this, the taxi's in the CapDist are crap and are allowed to remain crap because they've got no reason to better themselves so they all have sunk to the lowest common denominator (which is... being crap). I don't think Uber and Lyft are the answer to our terrible taxi problem but if they want to come in, Mayor Sheehan should force them to comply with NY insurance regs.

The taxi service here is abysmal and not one company is better then the other. 15 minutes means 2 hours FYI

How awesome would it be if the Albany powers that be stopped acting like the city is some provincial backwater. (At the very least I'm glad the embarassing taxi service is being called out with that survey) I had two experiences with Uber this weekend (in Baltimore and DC) and because I knew we could get safely home we threw caution to the wind as far as staying out/spending money was concerned. Stop palavering about these kind of services and facilitate their arrival. Some disruptive businesses are desperately needed here if we want to be taken seriously.

I don't use taxis, but I hear the taxis in the Capital District are pretty bad.

I think having Uber and/ or Lyft in the area would be good, provided that:

1: Uber and Lyft consider drivers to be employees, not independent contractors. That's completely unfair.

2. A way to use these services without a smartphone is established. Many people who need taxis can't afford, or can't use smartphones and the associated data plans.

Dave, I wonder how likely your second point would be. These companies are based entirely around smartphone apps, and I believe that was their entire point. As for your first point, I believe that would best be addressed through legislation that is more friendly toward these services.

NH92, while I do agree, our status as the state capital does not entitle us to, really anything. In fact, I wonder if the capital of my own state, Monpelier, VT has any cab service at all.

"A cab company official in LA complained to NPR in 2013 that these companies are basically offering the same services as a taxi, but don't have to follow all the rules"

I've only taken a taxi twice (in Schenectady) and as far as I can tell the only rule they might follow is not to crash into anything.

Both times the car reeked of old tobacco smoke. In one I needed to ask the driver to turn down the ball game on the radio, in another I watched the car pass by four times ( a quiet Sunday afternoon) and needed to call the dispatch twice only to find the car heat blasting (and loud talk radio).

I had my 12 year old daughter with me and prepped her that we could be in for an adventure, and we weren't disappointed. These companies operate as if they haven't had competition for years, which may not be far from the truth.

I know this is piling on at this point, 5 days after the posting, but there doesn't seem to be anywhere to complain either, nor expect that there will be any improvement. So here's another emphatic vote for an alternative.

Its is really sick with these albany cabs something needs to change. I hope lyft or uber comes to the capital region because we really need it.

RelayRides is what my husband & I want here.

Albany would greatly benefit from a service like Lyft or Uber. I can recall many instances where I've sat in a cab and the driver either has a friend in the front seat or picks someone up on the way to my destination. There was also a time I smelled alcohol inside my cab. Completely unfair and uncomfortable! At least with Lyft, you have the option to share the cab with someone (Lyft Line), if you wanted to. It also gives you a gps tracking of your cab so you know how close it is and when it arrives. Pleaseeeee bring Lyft to Albany, it will make this a better city.

I've had so many tremendously bad experiences with the taxi "service" companies in the Capital District, from hours-late arrival after carefully scheduling with the company, to drivers randomly changing the cost of the ride (no meters in Albany, to the surprise of folks visiting from larger and foreign cities), to terrible (dangerous!) driving, to extreme rudeness (on the phone and from the driver), to actual personal threats made by drivers that made me worry ever since for the safety of my family.

At least the cabs in NYC take credit cards--this cash-only situation in Albany has been horrible for guests at my company and family members who were told the ride would cost one thing, had enough cash for that, and wound up overcharged for the route with not enough cash on hand to pay the rude and threatening (and terrible) driver.

We've had foreign guests at my company who couldn't believe the behavior of our regions taxi companies was legal. (TBH, I'm wondering, too!)

I've been pretending for a couple of years now that taxi companies just don't exist in the region, my experience with them has been so bad.

Lyft would be 10,000,000 times better than what we have now. C'mon, Albany! We need them!

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