Ride-sharing services defy shut-down order in Pittsburgh


By Andrew Staub | PA Independent

When Pittsburghers couldn’t catch a cab or spent more than an hour waiting for a taxi that wasn’t guaranteed to arrive, ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft suddenly appeared to fill the void.

Then, Pennsylvania’s regulators shut down the rides. Tried to, anyway.

Uber and Lyft have ignored a cease-and-desist order issued by two Public Utility Commission administrative law judges July 1. The ride-sharing companies aren’t licensed under the state’s PUC, a requirement for anyone that provides transportation for compensation.

That situation has prompted complaints from traditional cab companies that believe everybody should be regulated equally, but not even the possibility of a $1,000 daily fines has deterred either of the ride-sharing services from continuing to ferry Allegheny County residents.

Lyft did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but Taylor Bennett, an Uber spokesman, said drivers count on the income, and people have come to depend on the ride-sharing service to get around the city.

FREE-MARKET SOLUTION STYMIED: When Pittsburghers needed an alternative to taxis, ride-sharing services such as Uber and Lyft filled the gap. Now, state regulations are jeopardizing that.

“They’ve come to rely on Uber, so we’re going to continue to provide that service,” Bennett said.

While the wheels will keep turning, the dispute has been mired in a regulatory morass, punctuated by the cease-and-desist order that could be accepted, rejected or modified by PUC commissioners at a July 24 meeting.

The fact that Uber and Lyft don’t really fit into an existing category under the state’s Public Utility Code has complicated the situation. The PUC met with the companies in March and outlined how they could operate legally in Pennsylvania, press secretary Jennifer Kocher said.

Both applied in April for an experimental license, but neither has been approved to date, Kocher said. Uber applied for emergency temporary authority earlier this month.

“These were all options that were given to them in March,” Kocher said, adding the commission supports the services but has an obligation to enforce the law.

It’s unclear what commissioners will decide, but what’s certain is that patrons of the ride-sharing companies, which use mobile apps to connect riders with drivers, want Uber and Lyft to stay in Allegheny County.

State Sen. Wayne Fontana, D-Allegheny, said customers have flooded his inbox with hundreds of emails that contain compliments about Uber and Lyft and “horror stories” about other transportation services arriving late or not at all.

Since coming to Pittsburgh in February, Uber has offered tens of thousands of rides and has hundreds of drivers, Bennett said.

“It’s obvious that the public wants it and wants that competition,” Fontana said. “Obviously, there was a gap in services that these services filled and will continue to fill.”

Fontana has introduced legislation that would allow the ride-sharing services to operate. It would also require the companies to maintain detailed records, establish a training program and implement a background check system.

The bill would also mandate that drivers keep an updated photo in plain view, enforce a zero-tolerance policy on alcohol use and craft a complaint reporting system.

While Fontana said the quickest solution is regulating the ride-sharing services, he also acknowledges that can be a slow process.

Changing government regulations usually can’t happen in the time it takes a Lyft or Uber driver to get someone home after last call, and Fontana even acknowledges that the timing isn’t ideal for his legislation.

The state Senate broke for the summer earlier this month and isn’t scheduled to return to Harrisburg until Sept. 15. Even then, this fall’s session is limited to 11 days because of the upcoming election, meaning Fontana’s bill might not make it into law in 2014.

That’d be OK, Fontana said, if the PUC allowed Uber and Lyft to operate temporarily under the parameters of his proposed legislation. Bennett said his company is “fully on board” with legislation that would make Uber more permanent in Pittsburgh.

“Everybody’s OK with the regulations, too,” Fontana said. “They just want it done yesterday.”

Jamie Campolongo, president of Pittsburgh’s Yellow Cab Co. and a critic of Lyft and Uber, did not return a message seeking comment.

But while the traditional taxi companies have complaints, the ride-sharing companies have powerful allies.

Even Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto is a fan. As technologies adapt over time, so must state regulators, Peduto said in a statement about the cease-and-desist orders.

“While the commission may wish for Pennsylvania to cling to a Jurassic Age of transportation options, people in Pittsburgh and other communities know our state must adapt or die in the global marketplace,” he said.

Staub can be reached at Andrew@PAIndependent.com. Follow @PAIndependent on Twitter for more.