Commercial ride-sharing services arrived in Pittsburgh earlier this year. While the city's established taxi companies have challenged their legality and safety, legions of passengers (including Mayor Bill Peduto) have welcomed the new players, sharing stories of slow or nonexistent cab service over the years.
The Post-Gazette decided to send a reporter around town for a week using Yellow Cab, Classy Cab and City Cab -- along with Uber and Lyft, the new ride-sharing services -- to catalog one person's experience.
It turns out you can get there from here. But how much you'll pay and how smoothly it will go may vary widely.
Lyft is a new-to-Pittsburgh ride share taxi service
Robin Stanton, a driver for Lyft, explains how Pittsburgh's new ride sharing service works. (Video by Connor Mulvaney; 3/16/2014)
Ride-share companies are a cross between taxis and jitneys with a little technology added. Both Lyft and Uber are only accessible via smartphone apps. Both enlist drivers to use their own cars, which is a subject of debate between the companies and the state Public Utility Commission (technically, they need a special license to carry passengers for compensation, which Uber has and Lyft does not).
Lyft goes a step further, adding a social aspect to rides, with furry pink mustaches attached to the front of all the cars and fist-bump greetings from drivers to passengers encouraged. And passengers and drivers are encouraged to rate each other after the trip. Uber, which has been around longer and is in more cities than Lyft, has several versions of its service, ranging in price and vehicle size. The lowest-cost service, called UberX, is the only level available here.
The whole experience proved an interesting way to meet some Pittsburgh characters, from retiree Maureen, who said she's not afraid of a few drunken passengers, to Oussama, the Syrian immigrant who wasn't quite sure how to get to the East End. Some offered treats, others offered behind-the-scenes information on credit card fees.
March 7: UberX
Downtown to the South Hills, around 4:30 p.m.
After signing up for Lyft and Uber accounts via smartphone (Lyft requires a Facebook log-in, both require a credit card), I opened the Uber app to track down a ride. The real-time map shows tiny cars, indicating nearby drivers. I submitted my request for a nearby Uber driver and after about four minutes, Rachel showed up in her slightly dingy Ford Escape.
Conversation started easily; it was an unusually nice day, and the windows were open. I got a little maternal, asking if she ever felt concerned for her safety as a young woman traveling alone. She said she would decline a trip if she wasn't comfortable when she pulled up to collect a rider. But so far, so good, she said.
Her car was a little dirty on the outside, but clean and neat on the inside. She had GPS, which she referred to briefly.
March 10: Lyft
South Hills to Downtown, around 9:30 a.m.
I tried unsuccessfully to snap a picture of the pink mustache on the front of Maureen's Volkswagen, if only to show my skeptical fourth-grader. Maureen had arrived within five minutes of my request, and as per Lyft protocol, I sat up front.
This was new to me, but she was inviting and warm. The retired campus police officer said driving for Lyft has exceeded her income expectations after only three weeks. She was confident she could handle anyone who might get out of control: "I know how to break someone's finger if I need to."
Most of the passengers she picks up who have been drinking -- and there have been several -- aren't rowdy, they just want to get home. She's already developed some "regulars."
Maureen gave two of Lyft's signature fist bumps, for a first Lyft and another for this fellow New Englander.
March 11: UberX
Downtown to East Liberty, around 6 p.m.
This was perhaps the most ... disconcerting trip of the entire week. Driver Oussama called before arriving, not entirely sure where the pickup address was, and made a U-turn in the middle of the Boulevard of the Allies to pick up his two passengers.
He plugged the destination into his GPS, but he kept disagreeing with it (out loud) and took a few wrong turns. Put simply: We heard other drivers' horns a lot during this trip. The back seat was a little cramped for a tall person. Oussama was pleasant and friendly, but we arrived to our event late because he was confused about the best way to get out of Downtown.
March 11: Yellow Cab
East Liberty to South Hills, around 8:30 p.m.
Despite the rap that Yellow Cab drivers don't show up or take forever to arrive, this driver showed up within 10 minutes of being called. Asked his opinion of ride shares, the driver was off and running, suggesting that Mayor Peduto, an outspoken supporter of Lyft and Uber, has a "vendetta" against Yellow Cab. The driver, who grew up in East Liberty, echoed the sentiment that ride-share services are illegal and don't play by the rules that cabs and limos must abide by.
March 12: Lyft
South Hills to Omni William Penn Hotel, Downtown, around 11 a.m.
The first thing I noticed when Darnell's Chevy Malibu pulled up: No pink mustache. It was raining heavily, which Darnell said was the main reason he had the pink mustache stuffed in the trunk: "They don't smell good when they get wet."
A former pizza delivery driver and taxi driver, Darnell admitted the other reason he was reluctant to show off the mustache was the tension between ride-share drivers and taxi drivers. When we pulled up to the Omni, there were several Yellow Cabs parked in front.
Darnell added that a major disadvantage of driving a taxi is that sometimes customers would jump out and not pay. But in a ride share, they can't do that because credit cards are kept on file.
Darnell gave a fist bump both entering and exiting.
March 12: Classy Cab
Cab stand at Fairmont Hotel, Downtown, to South Hills, around 7 p.m.
There were three taxis parked at the cab stand, and I chose Classy Cab since it was first in line. Classy Cab cars, it should be noted, are larger and a little more evocative of a limousine. They're also a little more expensive. The driver was very friendly. He thought ride shares could pose safety hazards, but he did not see them as an extreme threat to cabs and their business. He did not balk at receiving a credit card for payment.
Ride cost: $18
March 13: City Cab
South Hills to Downtown, about 9:30 a.m.
Although the dispatcher couldn't give an estimate when the taxi would arrive, it showed up in about 15 minutes. The driver had called first to ask if we were paying cash. "Yes" seemed to be answer he was looking for.
But he was very talkative and had strong opinions about ride shares versus taxis. Cab drivers in Pittsburgh, he explained, lease their taxis. Even if they sit idle with no calls for several hours, they'll still have to pay their weekly lease of around $800, he said.
Credit card payments are a sore spot for taxi drivers in Allegheny County, he said, because drivers pay a surcharge when a passenger uses a card. An offer to get cash from an ATM once fellow passengers had left the vehicle was gratefully accepted.
March 13: Lyft
Downtown to the North Side, around 5:50 p.m.
Dan took a little longer to arrive than previous Lyft drivers, close to 20 minutes, but it was the height of rush hour. He had a stash of candy in his car for passengers, which he offered as if it were a fine wine list: "Tonight's selections include peppermints and Starbursts."
He said business had been a little slow, which he attributed to students being on spring break. He considered the timing of the Pittsburgh launch a little off, and reported he wasn't making the earnings projected during his training with Lyft. Some nights he was making almost nothing, he said.
Dan briefly considered exploring driving for Uber, but was taken aback by some apparently aggressive marketing moves. He said Uber had scheduled, then canceled, a large number of Lyft rides. It then contacted the presumably disgruntled drivers to get them to sign up with Uber, he said. (Uber representative Nairi Hourdajian said Friday that "no Uber representative has either requested or taken a ride with Lyft in Pittsburgh." However, what Dan described is similar to a practice reported in other cities.)
Dan wasn't sure he wanted to sign up with a company that engaged in "stunts" like that, but the chance to make more money was tempting.
March 13: Lyft
North Shore to the South Hills, around 6:30 p.m.
The final ride share of the week was with Lyft driver Blake, who was a little quieter than previous Lyfts, but showed up within six minutes. By this time, I was feeling like a pro at sitting up front with strangers.
In the end, this far from scientific experiment seemed to show that the cost of most cab rides -- with the exception of Classy Cab, which markets itself as higher-end -- ran roughly the same as a Lyft or Uber trip.
Overall, taking the ride shares was quick and convenient, with receipts delivered by smartphone almost immediately. The Lyft drivers seemed to know their way around Pittsburgh a little better than Uber drivers.
Are the new ride-sharing services a feasible way to get around Pittsburgh? If you're Downtown, chances are you can get a taxi or a ride share any time.
But the legality of ride sharing has yet to be settled. The executive director of the Public Utility Commission and Mr. Peduto both support the alternative transportation companies in principle, but there are questions as to whether the new arrivals' business models run afoul of state law.
One thing ride shares and taxi drivers seem to have in common: plenty of opinions on how Pittsburgh should get where it's trying to go.