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Controversial cab, ride-share apps reshape the face of transportation

Caitlin McGarry | April 2, 2013
Cities around the country are adapting to a new world in which transportation apps let you hail cabs, reserve private cars, or share rides with a few taps on your smartphone’s screen. Here's a status report from the front lines.

Ride-sharing apps such as Lyft and SideCar connect ordinary drivers using their own vehicles with people looking for rides. The service is donation-based, and the apps offer suggested donation amounts. You could pay nothing, but then drivers would give you negative ratings, and no one would offer you a ride again. The tech companies argue that they're just providing a platform. Cities aren't so sure.

Washington, D.C., balked when Uber first entered the city more than a year ago. City officials tried to introduce legislation that would have instituted a price floor for luxury-car services higher than Uber's $7 base fare.

Uber CEO Travis Kalanick protested and, after months of negotiations, D.C. officials in December created a new digital dispatch framework to regulate apps like Uber. The city now has a single license for for-hire vehicle operators regulated by the D.C. Taxicab Commission.

But ride-sharing apps like SideCar, which on March 22 expanded limited service to D.C., don't offer vehicles for hire.

Ride-sharing apps are 21st-century versions of the ride-share boards that popped up decades ago in college student unions. Cofounder Allen says that SideCar looks at each city's transportation laws before expanding--the nine-month-old company is now in nine cities across the country--but because few cities have rules regarding transportation apps, SideCar and its cohorts find themselves untangling legal threads as they go along.

Full speed ahead

Nevertheless, the rate of expansion isn't slowing down.

Lyft, which debuted in San Francisco last summer and became best known for its fuchsia fender 'staches, added Los Angeles service in January and will roll out in Seattle on April 12. Uber, the largest of this crop of apps, is now in more than 30 cities around the world, including Paris and Berlin.

Though the apps are targeting major metropolitan areas right now, soon an e-hail or ride-share app could be available in suburbs.

Both SideCar and Lyft plan to roll out to smaller cities as part of their expansion plans.

Lyft cofounder John Zimmer says that the startup is first finding its footing in dense metro areas with a high population of early tech adopters, but that the plan is to go mainstream and expand its core demographic. Expansion will be difficult in areas where car ownership is the norm, SideCar's Allen says, but SideCar is seeing success in Los Angeles.

Of course, most transportation apps have the same plan. Will the arena eventually get too cluttered with too many apps trying to disrupt the system? Zimmer says each app is just another option.

"I think there's some overlap, but I also don't think it's a zero-sum game," Zimmer says. "What we're all competing against together is the idea that you have to own a vehicle. I got rid of my car when I started Lyft, and I've heard that story several times. Whether it's public transportation, taxis, or things like Lyft or Zipcar, we're giving people tools to get around. The sum of those parts can be greater."

Also look for the apps to get more social. Both SideCar's Allen and Lyft's Zimmer hinted at adding more social features to the apps down the line to foster friendships between drivers and riders.


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