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Street Legal? Ride-share drivers settling in to a changing market 

"We are Pittsburghers and Pittsburgh needs ride-sharing."

Lyft driver Brandon Stirpe

Photo by Heather Mull

Lyft driver Brandon Stirpe

As a newly hired part-time driver for Lyft, Brandon Stirpe isn't just carrying passengers in his silver 2012 Kia Forte. He's also helping to drive a conversation in Pittsburgh about the city's cab service — and the legality of ride-sharing services.

Public officials are weighing how to proceed — on Grant Street, in Harrisburg, and even out at the Pittsburgh International Airport.

"We are Pittsburghers and Pittsburgh needs ride-sharing," says the 26-year-old Stirpe, who earned a master's degree from the University of Pittsburgh in December.

His sentiment is shared by 42-year-old Uber driver Marc Stern: "I'm not in the business to put anyone out of business, but the Yellow Cab system is broken."

Lyft and Uber are alternative cab services, in which drivers transport passengers using their own vehicles. Drivers are linked to passengers through smartphone apps, and the fare is charged to the passenger's credit card.

Since arriving in early February, the services have drawn raves from riders — but also the ire of traditional Pittsburgh taxi companies, and legal threats from the Pennsylvania Public Utilities Commission. They've also won a ringing endorsement from Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto.

Pittsburgh's established companies have urged Peduto to authorize city police to cite Lyft and Uber drivers. But at a Feb. 18 press conference, Peduto told reporters ,"I'm not going to be bullied. I'm not going to send Pittsburgh police officers [to] chase cars with pink mustaches on them."

Enforcement of taxi regulation can be conducted by the PUC without local police; agency spokesperson Jennifer Kocher says it issued 14 complaints for unlicensed cabs in the city last year. But although Lyft and Uber have been operating in Pittsburgh for two weeks, the agency has not cited any of their drivers. 

The agency engaged in some saber-rattling early on, threatening drivers with possible citations, and it seems wary of the way ride-sharing companies began operating without seeking government approval first. Still, the PUC has also professed a willingness to adapt to the way ride-sharing companies are changing the market.

"Any party at any time can petition the commission for a rule change or a waiver. No one has done that at this time," Kocher says.

"We've been encouraging [the ride-sharing companies] to come in to meet with us and we would work with them," Kocher adds. "They have never presented anything to us as far as business models or a reason why they should be allowed to run. They just say, ‘We're operating.'"

Lyft spokesperson Erin Simpson says the company looks forward to working with regulators, but hasn't filed paperwork with the agency because, "They regulate taxis and limos. We are a peer-to-peer transportation provider."

Peduto, meanwhile, is urging the PUC to rework its regulations ... and says that if it won't do so, he'll ask the state legislature to rewrite the rules. In a letter, Peduto urged the PUC to "create a new regulatory category" that would bring ride-sharing drivers "under a common-sense regulatory regime." That would include background checks, liability insurance, and vehicle inspection, Peduto wrote.

"We welcome the mayor's suggestions," Kocher says.

Lyft driver Shannon Williams says that while she was not aware of the PUC threats until after she started driving, she's optimistic that things will work out.

"Lyft told us that they had a similar issue in California," Williams says: That state's Public Utility Commission agreed last year to permit the companies to operate, backing away from earlier opposition. "It would be unfortunate if [Pennsylvania regulators] cited us. It would do the city a disservice."

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