Web-based taxi cab competitors hit streets of New Haven

New Haven — To get from East Rock to East Grand Avenue, I downloaded an app, tapped a smartphone screen, and tracked Alva Jeffreys’ Hyundai Sonata on a Google map until she showed up at the curb.

To return, I dialed seven sevens and jumped into a minivan with an “old school” Indonesian taxi driver named Yunus.

One trip, with a new Web-based service in town called Lyft, represented the future. The other, with an old-school taxi, represented the past—a past that some feel is threatened by the emergence of new, as-yet-unregulated smartphone-savvy car services sweeping the city and the nation.

Two new services, Lyft and Uber, recently debuted in New Haven. The services work like this: Instead of calling for a cab, customers take out a smartphone, drop a pin on a map and request a ride. The driver, who is not a licensed cabbie, shows up in a personal car and gives the customer a ride. The customer pays a “donation” and hops out. The two companies are quickly expanding across the country: Since its launch in 2010, Uber has spread to over 100 cities. And in just 22 months, Lyft has offered over 1 million rides in 60 cities.

Uber hit New Haven on April 24. So did Lyft. New Haven was one of 24 new cities Lyft expanded to on that day, bringing a new wave of drivers to the streets.

A “Pioneer”

Drivers like Jeffreys (pictured), a 29-year-old Bridgeport native who now lives in New Haven. Jeffreys works as a part-time security guard at a school in Orange. She signed up last month to try out a second gig: taking passengers around town in her 1995 silver Sonata.

I met Jeffreys Friday morning. She showed up to give me a ride to 65 East Grand Ave., where the Independent had heard someone would be mounting a church steeple to knock down a bee nest with a broom.

To summon Jeffreys, I took out my Samsung Galaxy S4 and called up the Google app store. I downloaded the Lyft app. After waiving all sorts of personal privacy rights, including access to my contacts and communication patterns, I began to create the required user profile. I typed in a credit card number—a requirement of the service, and a key way the company keeps track of its passengers—and created an account.

“Congrats, you are now a Lyft Pioneer!” a text message announced. I learned that as an early adopter, I would get 50 free rides in 15 days.

I went to order my first “lyft.” Though the GPS on my phone was turned off, Lyft pegged my location within half a block through cell signal triangulation. I pressed “request a ride.”

 

Instantly, a little car icon popped up on a Google map, along with the photograph of my driver, Jeffreys. She was just seven minutes away.

The whole process flew by so quickly that I could barely get my boots on before she rolled up.

I had been expecting her car to bear the iconic fuzzy pink mustache that Lyft drivers hang on their grills. Jeffreys went incognito. She rolled down the window and greeted me wearing white Air Jordans and a gray sweatsuit. I checked my phone: Her face matched the photo. It was her sixth day on the job. She was so new at the job, she explained, that she hadn’t had time to unwrap her mustache and strap it onto her car. She had found time to unpack other company-issued accessories, such as several phone chargers passengers can use for free.

Instead of putting me in the rear, Jeffreys welcomed me into her passenger’s seat—another feature of Lyft’s program, which touts a friendly customer experience. Hits from KC101 played softly as we made our way toward Fair Haven. Jeffreys said she is getting the hang of the job. So far, most of her passengers have been Yale students, she said. Just before picking me up Friday morning, she had taken a passenger from Chapel Street to Pepe’s Pizza.

As we chatted, Jeffreys took directions from her iPhone 5, which was clipped to the A/C vent. She missed her turn onto Humphrey Street and, following her iPhone, looped down Trumbull, and back on State, to get back to Humphrey—an error few seasoned cabbies would make.

Jeffreys said she was looking for a second job on Indeed.com when she came across Lyft.

“What is this Lyfting?” she recalled asking. She was “skeptical at first” because “it didn’t seem official.” She decided to check it out. She put in an application and got a call back. She met a Lyft manager at a Stamford Starbucks for an interview. She took him around in her Sonata so he could check out her car and her driving skills. Then she went through a criminal background check and a driving record check.

On Sunday, April 27, she hit the road. She said she started out strong, with four requests—including two people from California, where Lyft debuted. Jeffreys sets her own hours. She submits her availability into a computer system, doing split driving shifts between her evening security job.

She said she could see this turning into a regular, long-term job: So far, all of her passengers have been friendly and nice. She finds it fun to drive around town, and “it helps out with a little extra cash in your pocket.”

Jeffreys was asked if she sees herself as competition to taxi cabs.

“We would become a big competitor to regular taxi drivers,” she reckoned, because her service is “cheaper” and “more customer-friendly.” Regular cabbies don’t always want to chat; they don’t have you ride in the passenger seat; and they run the meter, she noted.

At the end of the ride, Jeffreys pulled over and tapped a button on her iPhone to indicate the ride was done. A screen popped up on my phone, too, with a suggested “donation.” The price is generated by the app, based on the distance and duration of the ride (see rates here). The trip cost me $10, paid by credit card (no cash allowed).

Not A “Fee”

Technically, the payment is a “donation”; passengers pay what they want, with a minimum donation of $6. Calling it a donation is part of Lyft’s philosophy, said national spokeswoman Katie Dally.

“Lyft is about creating community and strengthening community,” she said. “Lyft is really a neighbor giving you a ride somewhere. … This is not a taxi service. This is not someone who’s giving you a ride for profit. This is someone who wanted to give you a ride.”

“We do pay all applicable taxes” on the money that exchanges hands, she said.

After I submitted my “donation,” a prompt popped up to rate the driver on a scale of one star to five stars. That’s one feature—common in other goods-sharing services, such as Airbnb—that aims to ensure that people don’t rip each other off. Jeffreys rated me, too, as we sat in the car.

Then, with no new requests for rides, she drove off in the direction of her home, passing a Metro taxi on the way.

I stayed to check out the bee situation at the church. I spotted a nest on a steeple, but nobody swinging any brooms.

Two guys drinking Sierra Nevada in a nearby construction van with Maine license plates said they didn’t know anything about the bees.

“Are you with PETA?” one asked.

I sat on the curb, took out my phone, and looked for a ride back to East Rock. I downloaded the app of Lyft’s competitor, Uber. Three searches revealed there were no UberX cars, no Uber “black cars,” and no Uber SUVs available to ferry me home. I waited a moment as a bee circled me.

I searched again. There were no Uber cars available. No Lyft cars, either.

Yunus Arrives

So I summoned a ride the old-fashioned way, by dialing seven sevens (now preceded by the inelegant 2-0-3). The call took 1 minute and 45 seconds. After 13 minutes, I got a text message that Taxi Number 372 was on the way. The driver, named Yunus, showed up in a minivan emblazoned with Metro Taxi’s hard-to-miss orange and white.

Yunus greeted me with a smile. When I gave him an address on Willow Street, he swung around in a confident U and headed in that direction, consulting only the map in his mind. Originally from Indonesia, he worked all kinds of manual labor jobs—in construction, at the New Haven Register—before switching to taxi-driving because of a bad back. Now, at 62 years old, he has been driving cabs for 20 years. I told Yunus I write for an online newspaper.

“I don’t do the Internet computer,” Yunus said. “I am old school.”

I told him about the new Web-based car-service program that people could summon from their smartphones, in which everyday citizens can drive strangers around town.

Yunus replied that the service sounds “dangerous.”

“If somebody have their own car, you don’t know if they’re psycho,” he said.

With Metro Taxi, on the other hand, “we are monitored by the company.” He said he passed a doctor’s physical, an FBI national background check and a check of his driving record before getting on the road. He said he has higher class of driver’s license, class P. The P stands for “public service.” If anyone has a problem with his behavior, he said, they can call his company and get him fired.

He said his taxi is equipped with a camera, which is constantly recording passengers, in order to monitor any belligerence or crime.

He further said he would be concerned for the safety of an unwitting citizen who signs up one day to start driving strangers around. He has been robbed three times, he said. One time, responding to a late-night call on Fitch Street, two gunmen came in from the side and held him up. They took everything—including the car key, he said. His car had to be towed.

“That’s the risk you’re taking with the public,” Yunus said.

Yunus said he takes measures to keep his own customers safe, waiting in the car until they walk into their homes.

He said he isn’t threatened by the competition—he likes the idea of other people being able to make money.

“My concern is the safety of the people,” Yunus said.

Who’s Driving You?

Yunus added that for people who like to type into phones, Metro Taxi now offers text-based services. (The company offers three new options: hailing a cab through its website, through text-messaging and through a smartphone app.)

He dropped me off and bid me well. The trip cost $13.68, including a 20 percent tip.

Metro Taxi officials could not be reached for comment Friday. A trade association representing taxi companies nationally has created a website that summarizes concerns taxi companies have with their new, high-tech competitors. The website, called Who’s Driving You, attacks Lyft and Uber, citing concerns that “amateur” drivers in an unregulated business put passengers at risk.

The state Department of Transportation (DOT), which regulates taxi drivers, liveries and household movers, has no power to regulate companies like Lyft and Uber, according to spokesman Kevin Nursick.

“The way it stands right now, we really don’t have any regulatory authority over them,” Nursick said.

Lyft spokeswoman Dally said Lyft takes its own measures to ensure safety, including background checks, driving checks, vehicle inspections and ensuring proper insurance. And though the company is not regulated by the state, the user rating system provides a form of crowd-sourced regulation that is not typical of traditional taxi companies.

Uber and Lyft both said they don’t aim to drive cabbies out of business.

“Uber supplements the taxi industry with a better, safer, more reliable alternative,” offered spokeswoman Natalia Montalvo.

“We actually think that having more options” other than driving a personal car “ultimately leads people to take advantage of existing transportation options”—such as public transit and cabs—more often, Dally said.

“If people choose not to drive themselves” to work or out to dinner, they won’t be driving themselves home, she noted. “If they take one [form of] transportation in, they may take another option home.”

This story originally appeared in the New Haven Independent.

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