Sophia Elias
June 26, 2013 3:10 pm

Just a few weeks ago, my friends and I were set to see Bjork perform at the Hollywood Bowl (she’s unreal, by the way). Knowing that parking would be a massive pain in the ass, we wisely opted not to drive ourselves and to take a “Lyft” instead. I had heard rave reviews about this mysterious “Lyft” app before, but never really understood how it worked. All I knew is that a driver from the company was going to pick us up in a car adorned with a fuzzy pink mustache and take us to the Hollywood Bowl. Sounds perfectly normal, right?

Much to my surprise, it was perfectly normal. In fact, it was better than normal – it was exceptional. Within seconds of ordering the Lyft, we were connected with a driver and given his ETA. As promised, our driver arrived 15 minutes later with a smile on his face and a clean, air conditioned car ready to go. He asked us if we had a preferred route, offered to put on some Bjork (a thoughtful gesture!) and started asking us about our lives. I never thought I’d say this but, just as the company’s slogan implies, they really are “your friend with a car”.

Unfortunately for me (and all other Lyft lovers out there), the Los Angeles Department of Transportation (LADOT) is not a fan. In fact, LADOT’s taxicab administrator, Thomas Driscler, issued a cease-and-desist letter to Lyft along with two other ride sharing apps (Über and Sidecar). All three of these companies work independently from the city of Los Angeles and are not licensed. The letter claims that these companies are,

Zoinks. While these are in fact unlicensed companies,  Lyft, Über and Sidecar have argued that they are only subject to state regulations. In addition, “all three [companies] have signed agreements with the California Public Utilities Commission permitting them to operate while the commission works on creating ridesharing rules” (Mercury News).

Los Angeles taxicab drivers responded on Tuesday by rallying their cars around City Hall to protest against the ride share applications. While I understand the outrage cabbies have toward companies like Lyft, Über and Sidecar, we can’t negate the fact that these companies occupy a niche in Los Angeles.

Anyone who has lived in or visited Los Angeles knows it’s a highly populated and sprawling city; relatively speaking, cabs are pretty damn sparse. To put it into perspective, “there are nine franchise taxi operators in the City of Los Angeles who operate more than 2300 taxis” (TaxiCabsLA). That said, I don’t even want to know how overwhelmed cab drivers must feel on New Year’s Eve in Los Angeles.

In addition to this existing limitation, LA cabs have a reputation for being intolerant of credit cards (often asking customers to use the ATM before/after hitching a ride), having “tricky” meters, arriving late for pickups, and driving recklessly.

While these claims may be supported by personal experiences, at the end of the day, they are not quantifiable. Sure, I’ve had late cabs, rude cabs and roller coaster cabs (some that rival even the wildest cabbies in NYC) – but, as my father says, “all of that is just a matter of opinion”. While that may be true, we are, however, able to quantify reported complaints.

In a 2011 annual review, the Los Angeles Taxicab Review and Performance Report states that customers reported complaints of various taxicab operator problems. Topping the charts were the following:

  • 23.6% of all complaints reported driver discourtesy
  • 19.9% of all complaints reported overcharge
  • 19.3% of all complaints reported payment acceptance (Scrip & CC)
  • 8.7% of all complaints reported driver refusal
  • 8.1% of all complaints reported driving safety & ability

For these reasons, residents of Los Angeles (and beyond) have opted for modern alternatives like Über, Lyft and Sidecar in place of the seemingly obsolete taxicab. But what makes these apps so different from a taxi? And why do customers gravitate toward them? I’ll tell you right now…

Lyft is: 

  • easy peasy – simply request a “lyft” via the app (Facebook required, though), and a designated Lyft driver will be at your pickup location ASAP.
  • user friendly – when you order a lyft, you are immediately given your driver’s name, photo, what kind of car s/he drives, their user rating, their estimated arrival time and contact information. You’re also welcome to contact your driver directly before s/he arrives. Amazing.
  • cash free – once you’ve arrived at your destination, there’s no need to pull out your wallet. The active credit card attached to your Lyft account will get the job done.
  • affordable – you pay your Lyft driver in donations. While it is voluntary, the app will give you a suggested donation amount when you arrive at your destination (which is still 20% less than a cab).
  • about customer service – Lyft users are asked to rate their driver and their overall Lyft experience at the end of their trip. Lyft drivers are also asked to rate their customers! So be nice, people!

Now for Sidecar. In an effort to prevent this from being repetitive, let me just tell you how Sidecar is different from Lyft:

  • They don’t require a Facebook account.
  • They ask for your destination in advance – this allows the driver to see whether the ride is truly feasible AND gives you the opportunity to take a peek the estimated donation before you confirm. Lovely.

Much like Lyft and Sidecar, Über is cash free and provides you with all of your driver’s information at a glance. In addition to all that good stuff, Über is:

  • all about customer control – you can pick between one to four types of cars (though this may vary city to city): “uberTAXI”, “uberX”, “UberBLACK” or the “UberSUV”. Each car has its own starting fee. 
  • spiffy – you won’t be riding in any ‘ol car – Über is pretty much a limousine service, at your service, any time. Hey-yo.

Why is that we call a Lyft, Sidecar and Über when cabs have always been there for us? Customers seem to favor these new ride sharing apps because it gives them some semblance of control over their selected services. Putting a name, a face and a social culture to your ride establishes a connection that cannot be achieved from phoning a taxi.

These companies thrive, not because they are unlicensed, but because they fill a need in the marketplace. Do you think the city of Los Angeles is justified in pursuing their unlicensed competitors? Or do you think these companies should be free to thrive, even if they’re unlicensed? I would love to hear everyone’s thoughts.

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