Pittsburgh cab firms try to cut off newcomers

Companies push for rule against ride-sharing drivers

Hart Johnson, a bartender at Piper's Pub on the South Side, knows that when an out-of-town patron asks him to call for a cab, it could be the worst service he's going to give all night.

"We'll spend uncomfortable hours apologizing, as [taxis] never show up," Mr. Johnson said. On a recent Tuesday at 2 p.m., he said, a customer who wanted to return to his Downtown hotel waited two hours for one of three different taxi companies to send a car. None did, so the customer decided to walk. "It was embarrassing."

As the region's two largest taxi companies prepare to fight to keep two ride-sharing companies from doing business in Pittsburgh, they also are battling their own image problems.

Stories abound of Yellow Cab, the largest taxi service in Pittsburgh, failing to show up on time, or at all.

After a late, very cold evening on the South Side, Amanda Rubio of Mount Washington said she tried to get a taxi until 2 a.m. but couldn't get one to pick her up. "I finally asked a police officer to take me home, even though I don't think they're supposed to do that," she said.

Internet-based ride-sharing services Lyft and Uber have arrived in Pittsburgh ready to offer other options -- options that could disrupt taxi service here as they have done in other cities.

The local taxi companies are not taking the challenge lightly.

Robert C. DeLucia and James Campolongo, who head Star Transportation Group and Pittsburgh Transportation Group respectively, sent a letter to Mayor Bill Peduto on Tuesday, along with a draft of an ordinance that would empower police officers to cite Lyft drivers for violating state law.

"The proposed ordinance is to arm City of Pittsburgh police officers ... with citation authority over vehicles operating like taxicabs or limousines, but not certified by the [Public Utility Commission]," according to their letter.

Kevin Acklin, chief of staff for Mr. Peduto, said the mayor is a strong proponent of introducing Lyft and other companies like it to compete with Pittsburgh's traditional cab operators, which he believes have failed to provide adequate service. He won't support an ordinance to ban the alternate services outright, Mr. Acklin said. Mr. Peduto, who is on vacation, was unavailable for comment Wednesday.

Mr. Acklin added that the issue of whether Lyft should be certified by the state is an issue for the PUC, not the city. But he acknowledged there may be other issues to work out, such as whether Lyft would be subject to earned income and payroll taxes.

"These are issues we're willing to discuss, not through a faxed letter demanding an ordinance banning it," the chief of staff said. "We're not saying it should be the Wild West ... issues like taxation and licensing and safety are something we would consider, but not an outright ban."

Mr. Acklin said the mayor believes the two companies have monopolized the cab industry in Pittsburgh for too long -- to the detriment of customers -- and have missed the boat on innovation.

Even Mr. Peduto has been forced to walk from Shadyside to his home in Point Breeze after waiting too long for a cab. And while Mr. DeLucia and Mr. Campolongo complained in their letter that Lyft could pose a public safety concern, Mr. Acklin said the lack of cab service for patrons of South Side bars creates its own hazards.

"There are limited options, limited public transportation options, limited availability of cabs, and unfortunately too many [bar patrons] do the wrong thing and drive home," he said. "We've seen too often tragedies that have happened by that."

Lyft, like its closest competitors SideCar and Uber, operates with drivers who use their own vehicles. All three services originated in San Francisco.

Uber announced late Tuesday that it would begin offering its UberX service in Pittsburgh. UberX is similar to Lyft, with drivers using personal vehicles. Uber Black, a version of the service that subcontracts with commercial limo companies, has been in Philadelphia since 2012.

Lyft spokeswoman Paige Thelen said despite Pittsburgh being its newest market, the company has already seen some positive response.

"Pittsburgh community members see Lyft as an additional transportation option that is safe, affordable and reliable," Ms. Thelen said in a statement. "By supporting innovation and technology, Mayor Peduto and the City of Pittsburgh are paving the way for providing sustainable transportation options that make our cities safer and better connected, and we look forward to continuing the conversation around Lyft's peer-to-peer business model and commitment to safety."

What happens locally with ride share companies could have a larger impact, according to Alfred LaGasse, CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit trade group Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association.

"Lyft and UberX are causing a showdown in Pittsburgh that cities across the country should watch," Mr. LaGasse said. "Pittsburgh is smart to go the route of police enforcement, which is the only thing these bandit taxi companies will respect."

Ride-sharing services have faced opposition in other cities, with Uber defending a lawsuit from the family of a 6-year-old girl in San Francisco who was struck and killed on New Year's Eve by a driver who said he was working for Uber at the time. Philadelphia shut down local operations of SideCar, which operates similarly to Lyft, in 2013. And the California Public Utilities Commission has fined SideCar, Uber and Lyft for operating without proper licenses.

Jennifer Kocher, press secretary with the PUC, said as of Wednesday afternoon there had been no complaints filed about Lyft operating in Pittsburgh.

But she said the company's practice of having drivers use their own cars without commercial licenses or insurance is illegal in Pennsylvania. Any time a driver is receiving compensation for providing transportation, the driver is supposed to have a commercial license, Ms Kocher said.

The taxi companies and the PUC are scheduled to meet in Pittsburgh today for their quarterly Ad Hoc Transportation Committee meeting.

"There's already a jitney service in the city, with these illegal cars we've been chasing down the past 10 years," Mr. Campolongo said. "They're illegal, too. We're unsure the PUC has the wherewithal or the resources to battle it, so we're willing to go to anyone we have to get those resources and get the law enforced."

Mr. DeLucia, CEO of Star Transportation Group, remembers the resistance when he started operating Classy Cab in Pittsburgh in 2005.

"I was opposed, but I followed the rules and followed the law, and now we're operational and the competition is great," he said. Star Transportation oversees Veterans Taxi, which employs veterans as drivers, and he said since his cars started running in Pittsburgh, he believes it has improved service at his biggest competitor, Yellow Cab.

But driving a taxi in Pittsburgh is not easy, Mr. DeLucia said.

"Pittsburgh is not a cab town," he said, because it is a small city. "If there are no conventions here, drivers can't make a living. That's why they like to do trips to the airport."

While he said he's not threatened by Lyft and Uber, he thinks they present safety issues. "The drivers will probably be substandard," he said. "It might be people on Social Security or on welfare trying to make money under the table. How are they going to track that?"

Will Reynolds Young of Castle Shannon said his first weekend as a driver for Lyft went better than he could have hoped, getting rave reviews from passengers.

The taxi companies in town have had a long time to improve, but have not done so, Mr. Young said. "The people want Lyft and Uber."

Mr. Campolongo said Yellow Cab has been expanding to try to meet demand, adding 60 new cars last year, and plans to add 60 more this year.

"I know people think this is a huge problem here, but if you gauge us against other cities, we're actually better," he said. "We have more than one taxi per every thousand people in the population. You won't find near that in other cities our size."

Mr. Johnson, at Piper's Pub, said it's less about the number of cabs and more about the inability to get one in a timely fashion, especially for a customer who may be too intoxicated to drive. "If I see someone who can barely walk, I may be able to delay them for 15 minutes, tops," he said. "I don't have an hour or two hours to wait for a cab. And I could get a jitney down here right away."

Kim Lyons: klyons@post-gazette.com 412-263-1241. Twitter: @SocialKimly. Moriah Balingit: mbalingit@post-gazette.com 412-263-2533. Twitter: @moriahbee.

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