The giant pink fuzzy mustaches on the front of cars were a dead giveaway.
Inspectors with the Public Transportation Commission that normally police the area for “pirate,” unlicensed taxi drivers spotted several of the pink mustaches on cars downtown this past week, stopped the drivers, and issued them warnings. Their crime: Picking up customers for the start-up ride-sharing service Lyft which uses the mustaches to make them stand out and — along with the similar service UberX — is trying to crack into the long-established and deeply regulated taxi and limousine marketplace with a new business model.
“At the end of the day, we’re going to take the high road on this,” said Kyle Cockream, the incoming executive director of the PTC. “We’re not here to hammer anybody.”
Some local politicians may want stiffer penalties to come, but for now the dispute mirrors other legal fights across the country. Both Lyft and Uber fall into what they say is a new category for transportation — somewhere between asking a friend for a ride and calling a taxi.
Lyft started Tampa service about a week ago and works this way: Drivers with a car and time to spare go through a background check with Lyft, and then log into the Lyft system when they’re available to give rides. Lyft customers can start up a Lyft app on their smart phones and request a ride. After the ride is complete, the Lyft system calculates an amount the company calls a “donation,” based on a formula that incorporates a pickup fee, plus time and distance, and any potential tip. Lyft then handles the transaction and pays the drivers, some of whom say they can make more than $1,000 on especially busy weekends.
Uber has a similar service called UberX, and the company started up that service lastFriday evening in the Tampa market – reversing the company’s stance, which had been to wait on legislation in Tallahassee that might have loosened the grip of local transportation regulators.
Here, the PTC regulates taxis, limousines and other vehicle services, and authorities with the PTC say any driver must pass their license tests, and use PTC-approved vehicles and charge PTC-approved rates. Lyft regularly claims its rates are 20 percent less than a comparable taxi ride, and Lyft just recently cut those rates by 20 percent more.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Victor Crist represents the county on the PTC, and said he wants to work with Lyft and Uber, but they must follow the same rules as taxi and limo companies.
“If they continue flouting our rules and regulations, we may have to exercise our rights under the law,” Crist said. “There are many new companies that want to come in and set up shop. ... We invite that, but they have to understand there are certain steps they have to take and certain rules and regulations they have to follow.”
Cockream said the next step beyond a warning would be fines levied by the PTC on drivers, which run from $30 to $500. A driver can get a $500 fine for operating without a certificate issued by the agency. Drivers also must get a public vehicle driver license, which is like a commercial driver license, and proper insurance.
Uber officials have not yet returned calls seeking comment, but Lyft officials did offer thoughts.
“We are aware that there have been threats and warnings to ticket community drivers, but we have not received direct communication regarding these threats,” said Lyft spokeswoman Paige Thelen, who added that Lyft will cover the cost of any fines imposed on drivers. “We are happy to work together with city leaders to discuss our unique model and find a path forward for ride sharing that prioritizes public safety and consumer choice.”
Angela Lang started as a Lyft driver on its launch day here, and said she’s had no problem picking up passengers at all over town, including Tampa International Airport. That’s notable because PTC officers regularly station themselves there to check for unauthorized drivers, and the overall Lyft image involves tying giant pink mustaches on the front of vehicles to make them noticeable.
“I’ve had a blast and I’ve met so many interesting people,” Lang said. “After my first week, the compensation and people met and connection made — absolutely I’m going to keep going.”
Staff Writer Mike Salinero contributed to this report