Lyft and Uber, two peer-to-peer ridesharing apps, have been attempting to convince city government to allow their services in St. Louis through a prolonged series of court hearings. While they’re launching in cities all over the country (Lyft currently operates in 60 cities), both have hit a few snags in the Lou. Lyft launched without first being certified by the city, and was served a temporary restraining order filed by the Metropolitan Taxi Commission, arguing that Lyft shouldn’t be allowed to operate without a ride-for-hire license. Lyft, on the other hand, insists they are not a taxi service and should not be subject to the same requirements.
When dealing with a motor vehicle on the road, drivers and their passengers accept a certain percentage of risk, whether subconsciously or not. Yes, the vast majority of the rides would probably go off without a hitch, and yes, the service would probably work exactly as intended, most of the time. But what about for that one person for whom this could all go completely awry?
I’ll admit, the idea of peer-to-peer ridesharing apps is intriguing. But in practice–and maybe I’ve watched too many episodes of “Law & Order SVU”–it poses several potential problems. Lyft says they are not a taxi service, and the model does not inherently present any more of a safety risk than traditional cabs. But is using an app to solicit a ride from a stranger in their personal vehicle just as safe as commissioning a professional, city-regulated cab service? Aside from the smartphone component, I don’t see how this distinguishes itself from hitchhiking.
According to Lyft’s website, the app grew out of the discovery that 80% or more of seats on the road are often empty, and their rides cost passengers about 30% less than the cost of a cab. Using a map to locate the nearest location of Lyft-certified drivers, passengers can request a ride and be charged automatically through credit card. Lyft drivers must undergo background checks and pass vehicle inspections, but neither Lyft nor Uber have a city-monitored system of rate regulation or consistent inspection of vehicles, neither are licensed by the Public Service Commission, and both operate using standard license registrations instead of the Class B registrations required of hireable vehicles.
Since there has been no precedent for this type of service in our city, if Lyft isn’t treated as a taxi service, there is no current legislation in place to protect passengers or drivers who use ridesharing apps. There’s also the problem of insurance: Lyft drivers are required to have insurance for their personal vehicles, and the app has developed their own insurance plan that covers injuries or property damage. To evade legislation that would apply to a commercial transportation service, Lyft has consistently asserted they are not a taxi service, do not have responsibility over vehicles, and simply connect drivers to passengers. However, the fact that they have an insurance plan for drivers implies that they do have responsibility over Lyft vehicles, and should be treated as a taxi service.
However, as I said before, the concept of ridesharing apps is an interesting way to look at transportation. The state of Colorado has sponsored legislation that will monitor the activities of ridesharing apps, if passed–the first state to do so. If St. Louis duplicated this model, with significant legislation that would protect and monitor Lyft drivers and passengers, perhaps we could responsibly introduce apps like Lyft and Uber into the fabric of our transportation options.