Road testing Yellow Cab, Lyft and Uber in Pittsburgh

Reporters find mixed results with ride sharing, taxis

The traditional Pittsburgh driver knows the route to travel to avoid crossing the same river twice in one trip. But the new reality of Pittsburgh's roads has cars with pink mustaches and drivers with GPS systems beckoned by riders with smartphones who don't much care which way they go, as long as they show up on time. At the same time they're battling with regulators and competing with taxis, ride-share companies Lyft and Uber are changing how people get around in Pittsburgh.

We decided to try to challenge some of the long-held assumptions about what it's like navigating the region in someone else's car. Is it possible to get a ride on the South Side when the bars let out? Have certain city neighborhoods been unofficially "redlined," meaning vehicles-for-hire won't go there at all? And if a traveler isn't going to the airport but just wants to get to the suburbs, how long will he have to wait?

Our band of reporters took to the streets to try to answer some of these questions. One waited in McKees Rocks for a taxi that never showed. Another held on as his taxi sped out the Parkway West to the airport at top speed. And another couldn't get a ride-share smartphone app to work, despite her best efforts.

The state Public Utility Commission says the San Francisco-based ride-share services do not have required licenses to operate in Pennsylvania. But they continue to operate in the Pittsburgh area despite a July 1 cease-and-desist order from an administrative law judge and concerns that drivers may lack adequate insurance and training.

While mileage and experiences varied, PG riders encountered many twists and turns in the road -- everything from no-show taxis, to technology glitches, to drivers who didn'‍t know where they were going.

After a week with seven travelers riding around the area, comparing the region's largest cab company, Yellow Cab, Lyft and Uber, here's what we found:

Yellow Cab
Driving factor: Doesn't always come when called, so be prepared to wait

The most frequent complaint about Yellow Cab, which has more than 300 taxis, is that riders wait for drivers who never arrive. An attempt to get a Yellow Cab in the Hill District on a Tuesday afternoon left reporter Albert Anderson out of luck after 40 minutes. He tried again in McKees Rocks. No luck there, either.

The Yellow Cab drivers who did show up took a long time to arrive. And two drivers asked the riders whether they could pay with cash instead of a credit card. While the drivers all had a good sense of direction, one reporter waited twice as long as expected because a dispatcher sent her taxi to the wrong place. Instead of going to Park House on the North Side, where reporter Madeline Conway was waiting, the dispatcher sent the taxi to the Park House in the Strip District.

Getting through to dispatch wasn't always easy on the first try. Reporter Mary Hornak had to call twice before she got anyone on the line; on her first attempt, she got a recording telling her no one was available, and to please call back. Her driver took nearly 30 minutes to pick her up to take her from Bridgeville to Downtown on Wednesday morning.

Our airport traveler said his taxi took him from Shadyside to Pittsburgh International Airport after a wait of about a half hour. The driver made up for the delay by driving well above the speed limit -- estimated in the 80 to 85 mph range, said rider Isaac Stanley-Becker.

When we requested a taxi for a trip from Manchester to Oakland on a Wednesday morning, we weren't sure what to expect. But a polite older driver, who apologized for not calling while en route, arrived in about 10 minutes. "My driver was really friendly and chatty," said Clarece Polke, "and suggested several fun places to go at night."

Then, there was the South Side. Legend has it taxis are rare on the South Side when the bars let out, especially on weekends.

After reporter Matt Nussbaum waited almost a half hour, a Yellow Cab did come to retrieve him on the South Side at 11:33 p.m. to take him to Oakland. This was significantly longer than his wait time for Lyft or Uber during the same time frame for the same route, which both showed up in two or three minutes.

Here’‍‍s a map illustrating the results of the Yellow Cab rides.

(Maps designed by Ethan Magoc/Post-Gazette)

Driving factor: Usually gets you there, but needs directions

Lyft bills itself as "your friend with a car" and encourages riders to sit up front and fist-bump with the driver. 

Of the three services we surveyed, Lyft has the smallest local coverage area, stretching as far north as Avalon, into the South Hills, west to the airport and east to the Edgewood-Swissvale area.

And our experience found Lyft drivers to be the most directionally challenged. While most relied heavily on their GPS devices, our Manchester-Oakland trip was unfamiliar territory for one Lyft driver.

"At first, she used navigation to help her find my apartment. Then, about halfway through the trip, she decided to turn off the navigational system and said she knew a better way," said Clarece Polke. "Her way was almost 10 minutes longer than my Yellow Cab ride." Her driver's skills weren't the greatest either; she drove through several yellow lights and didn't use turn signals.

What surprised us most was that the majority of the Lyft vehicles did not have the company's signature pink mustache on the front. One said it was to avoid drawing attention, another said she had been driving only a week and had not received it yet, and another said she was told not to display it. Since several of the drivers said they also drive for Uber, it would make sense to keep their cars looking as generic as possible. But many Lyft and Uber drivers have been wary of being spotted after 22 were cited by a PUC enforcement officer earlier this year (a 23rd driver had the charges dismissed).

Along with the pink mustache, Lyft's brand is positioned as a less corporate alternative to Uber. Our riders found many offered water, gum or candy; there's even one Pittsburgh Lyft car decked out in a Hello Kitty motif. And varying from taxis and Uber, Lyft passengers should be prepared to sit in the front seat, and be greeted by a fist-bump from drivers.

The atmosphere didn't always feel as genuine as intended, however.

"Driver was very friendly but in a forced, awkward way -- asked me to sit in the front seat and then proceeded to fist-bump me when I got in," said Isaac Stanley-Becker.

And we noticed the cost of the Lyft rides seemed to vary the most. When we sent reporter Matt Nussbaum to the South Side to test the services, his Lyft to Oakland cost $8. The Manchester-Oakland trip was $12, and a trip from Homestead to Homewood was $14.

Here’‍‍s a map illustrating the results of the Lyft rides.

Driving factor: A mostly smooth ride, but some tech problems

Uber Technologies was valued in June at around $18 billion. It's the bigger of the two ride-share companies, with the most cities on its map, including a recent foray into London, to the displeasure of that city's well-established taxi drivers. The version in Pittsburgh, UberX, is closer to Lyft's model of drivers using their own cars.

Uber bills itself as a technology company that happens to provide transportation. But at least one of our reporters wasn't able to get its technology to work, leaving her unable to connect with a driver. Clarece Polke tried to sign up for Uber using her smartphone, but because of her data plan, the text messages to initiate service never came through. Even after she called her provider, and installed and uninstalled the app, she wasn't able to get it to work properly.

Albert Anderson not only wasn't able to get a Yellow Cab to come to McKees Rocks, he tried unsuccessfully to get an Uber car, only to have the app tell him "no UberX available" for an extended period of time. "I could see all the cars driving around Downtown on the app," he said. After getting a Lyft to the Hill District, it turned out the nearest Uber driver would have been the same Lyft driver who had just dropped him off, as she drives for both concurrently.

Our Uber riders all mentioned they had difficulty distinguishing the cars when they arrived.

"It was hard to detect which car it was," said Isaac Stanley-Becker, who went from the airport to Shadyside. "I wasn't sure if my driver was someone just idling or there to pick me up." His driver, who also delivers pizzas when he's not driving for Uber, picked him up at the airport ground transportation area near the taxis and limousines, which may actually not be in keeping with Allegheny County Airport Authority rules.

But of our successful Uber rides, all arrived within the time frame estimated, and the drivers knew where they were going with little GPS assistance.

And, PG test riders did not encounter Uber's "surge pricing" -- in which cost of the ride rises in periods of high demand -- during any of the trips, which can result in an estimated fare being more than double its normal amount.

Here's a map illustrating the Uber rides.

Even though they face proposed daily fines of $1,000, both Lyft and Uber are not retreating in Pennsylvania. Drivers have expressed some wariness, but for the most part, feel confident that the companies will help them with any court fees or fines.

Yellow Cab has decided to introduce a ride-share app of its own, tentatively called Yellow X, which is expected to launch soon.

The PUC is expected to decide on Uber's application for emergency service sometime this week. And when lawmakers return to Harrisburg after the summer recess, legislation by Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Brookline, to change the law to create a new category of transportation provider to cover ride shares awaits their consideration.

Whether ride shares will be able to keep on the straight and narrow in Pennsylvania remains to be seen, but in Pittsburgh, the services seem to be working out bumps in the road.

Reporting for this story was contributed by Post-Gazette staffers Tyler Batiste, Clarece Polke, Albert Anderson, Mary Hornak, Madeline Conway, Isaac Stanley-Becker and Matt Nussbaum. Data reporting by Ethan Magoc and Andrew McGill. Kim Lyons: or 412-263-1241. On Twitter: @SocialKimLy

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