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."
Even with the PUC expressing a willingness to adapt, ride-sharing might still encounter roadblocks out at Pittsburgh International Airport.
Uber's coverage map includes the airport; on its Twitter account and website, the company has quoted average prices from Downtown to the airport ranging from $22-28. Stern says he took a couple of trips to the airport in his first week as a driver.
As for Lyft, its coverage area extends only as far west as Carnegie, but Stirpe says once a driver picks up a passenger within that area, he or she can travel as far as 60 miles beyond it.
"We could take you to the airport, but we could not pick you up there," he says.
But JoAnn Jenny, a spokesperson for the county's Airport Authority, says neither company has applied for a necessary permit. "Non-permitted operators" face citations from county police, she says.
"Applicable law and regulations require that commercial ground-transportation providers, including any person who picks up or drops off passengers at Pittsburgh International Airport for a fee, have sufficient liability insurance and proper licenses, and that they secure a permit from the Allegheny County Airport Authority," Jenny says.
Christopher Kearns, Allegheny County Police Inspector at the airport, says the department is aware of the ride-sharing services. County police will enforce any violation they see, he says — including not having the proper permit to pick up at the airport, or dropping off a fare at the non-commercial curb.
"If it is an unmarked car, it is difficult to say if they are operating commercially," Kearns says. "We haven't seen a pink mustache at the airport yet." Kearns says that the insignia on the front bumper would give the police the right to stop a vehicle picking up or dropping off a passenger.
(A spokesperson for Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald, a Peduto ally, declined to address the issue. "As it is the Airport Authority, rather than the Executive, that will need to respond to any issues, we'll defer to them," wrote Amie Downs in an email.)
Lyft or Uber drivers wouldn't be the first to receive a citation for serving the airport. J.B. Taxi Service, out of Beaver, has been cited a few times by county police when drivers dropped off at the airport without a permit to do so.
"We've been cited by the county police. We thought we could drop off, but they told us we could not be there without a permit," says owner Roxanne Szczepanski.
Elsewhere, at least one airport has taken action against ride-sharing services independently, despite moves made by other regulators. Although California's PUC now permits ride-sharing, Uber terminated its pick-up service at Los Angeles' LAX airport last month, complaining that "authorities have taken an aggressive stance [by] issuing citations to some drivers." (Drivers in L.A. are allowed to drop off passengers, however.)
As in other markets where the companies began operating first and then dealt with regulatory questions, the services seem to be thriving.
Neither Lyft or Uber will release figures on the number of drivers they have signed up in Pittsburgh. But Lyft's app showed that the service was operating with its version of surge pricing — charging more during its busiest times — most days last week.
Stern says Uber is guaranteeing him a $15 base hourly rate now. Stirpe, however, says Lyft is not paying drivers a set rate to begin, and "the actual dollar amount is something Lyft doesn't like us to disclose."
Drivers describe a similar application process at both companies. Stirpe, for example, says he applied online, and was asked to come to a group interview. Lyft officials checked his insurance status and took his Social Security number for a background check, though he was not fingerprinted — a frequent step in a background check. He says his car was given a brief safety check: seatbelts, turn signals, lights, tires and even an external check for scratches and dings.
"When I heard back," Stirpe says, "I was told that I was a driver and was invited to the staff launch party."
He and the other drivers say their customers — most of whom are either Pitt or CMU students, they say — have been enthusiastic.
"People are excited," says Stern. "Most have used Uber in other cities, and are happy it's now in Pittsburgh."
Lyft driver Shannon Williams says she loves having fun while making extra money. On Valentine's Day, she says, "I gave out hearts and candy and little pink mustaches to my passengers. It was completely different than a taxi or other car service. It was great."