State lawmakers have passed legislation that will allow ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft to operate statewide. But it remains unclear whether pink mustachioed Lyft cars and Uber SUV’s will appear on Ulster County roadways anytime soon.
Over the past five years the ride-sharing outfits, known as transportation network companies (TNCs), have become a ubiquitous presence in New York City and other urban centers around the world. The companies use smart phone-based technology to link riders with drivers who operate as independent contractors using their own vehicles. The app handles payment, lets users know when their ride will show up and allows riders and drivers to rate one another. In New York City, the companies operate under the oversight of the city’s Taxi and Limousine Commission. But insurance coverage and concerns over worker compensation and other labor issues have prevented the networks from operating upstate.
The compromise agreement hammered out in Albany as part of this spring’s budget process comes after several failed efforts in the past few years. The new law calls for transportation network companies and drivers to be licensed by the state Department of Motor Vehicles and for drivers to pass criminal background checks.
The law also creates a new insurance policy tailored for TNC drivers. The policy, which will be more affordable than standard commercial policies carried by cab companies, offers different levels of coverage for periods when the TNC vehicle is waiting for a call and actually transporting passengers. A 4 percent tax on TNC rides is expected to generate $24 million in revenue and offset the costs of including TNC drivers in a workers’ compensation fund for car service employees. The bill also allows counties and cities with populations over 100,000 to ban the ride hailing companies or require them to operate under local ordinances.
“Although the final arrangement does not offer all of the protections I hoped for, the Assembly’s leadership on this issue paved the way for provisions that protect drivers and the passenger while respecting the autonomy of our local governments,” said Assemblyman Kevin Cahill (D-Kingston) who helped lead negotiations as chairman of the Assembly’s Insurance Committee.
While the path is now clear for ride-sharing companies to operate in Ulster County, whether any will actually do so is unknown. Cahill, for one, is doubtful whether the new legislation will have any impact on transportation locally. Cahill noted that the TNCs involved in the negotiations were focused on major urban areas and college towns like Buffalo, Rochester and Syracuse. Cahill said, the largest TNC, Uber, operates in just a few hundred communities nationwide — all of them with larger and denser populations than Kingston.
“I don’t see Uber coming to Ulster County,” said Cahill. “We don’t fit their business model.”
But another popular ride-hailing company, Lyft, has already dipped a toe into the Ulster County market. Last year a representative for the company spoke at a Hudson Valley Tech Meetup event in Kingston. Kale Kaposhilin, CEO of local firm Evolving Media and meetup organizer, said that the meeting left him optimistic about the potential for local Lyft service.
“My impression is that Lyft’s technology is more suited to areas like ours that are a little more rural and less urban,” said Kaposhilin.
Kaposhilin said that there was clearly a demand for the service locally. Newcomers to the area from downstate, he said, had come to rely on ride-hailing services for quick and easy transportation while dissatisfaction with local taxi service, especially at night and on weekends, left many eager for an alternative.
“I have not talked to a single person who does not want ride-sharing available locally,” said Kaposhilin. “Consumer confidence in cabs as a service is so low and the enthusiasm for ride sharing is a direct reflection of that.”
Adrian Durbin, director of communications for Lyft, said Wednesday, April 12 that the company was in the early stages of evaluating the upstate New York market but was already accepting applications for drivers statewide. Durbin said which communities were chosen for service would depend on the supply of drivers and the demand from the community. In neighboring Connecticut, Durbin said, the company had garnered a strong enough response to do a statewide rollout with service extending to smaller towns and suburban areas.
“We’re thrilled to finally be able to bring Lyft to New York State,” said Durbin. “This is something we’ve been working on for a long time and the day is almost here.”