Lyft Is Coming to NYC, and the Taxi Commission Is Already Fighting It

The company's short driver training sessions are at odds with the city's regulations.

Image: Lyft

Lyft, the popular rideshare competitor to Uber, says it's ready to throw its mustachioed cars into the crazy mix of taxis, black cars, and other driver services that shuttle people around New York City. Problem is, the city's Taxi and Limousine Commission says if the company doesn't certify its drivers as taxis, it's going to take action.

That doesn't really jive with Lyft's mission, which is to give folks with access to a car and a little bit of extra time on their hands the chance to supplement their income by offering rides. The TLC, meanwhile, wants to let only serious taxi drivers operate in the city—New York's 24-hour driver certification course is considerably more time intensive than Lyft's two-hour driver class.

At the moment, the startup and the city are at a standstill when it comes to working out an agreement.

"Every rider deserves the safety and consumer protections our rules provide, and we have a long track record of working successfully with innovative companies to help them start out the right way," New York City TLC Chair Meera Joshi told me. "We’re still hopeful that Lyft will accept our offer to help them do the right thing for New York City passengers as they should, but New Yorkers can rest assured that the TLC will do its job and take the actions necessary to protect them.”

That's code for get your drivers certified or expect us to crack down on you, a move that NYC has made before. In the past, the city has impounded cars of rideshare drivers who operated in the city illegally, essentially putting an end to a service called Sidecar in the city. 

The move also signals that the three-way war between Uber, Lyft, and yellow taxis won't just be fought on the streets, it'll also be fought through political channels. 

"We reached out to the TLC a month ago and have been in conversations with them. We're optimistic that they don't see this as a zero-sum game where you have one or you have the other. We think there's room for everyone," John Zimmer, Lyft's cofounder, told me.

"It's a new industry. When they create regulations, they weren't thinking of the single moms and the other drivers we have … we're doing our best to be proactive, but there are going to be various challenges along the way," he said.

That the two sides are at odds shouldn't be surprising; Lyft and Uber have had problems with traditional taxi drivers in pretty much every municipality they've entered.

The pressure on the city's taxi drivers isn't only coming from Lyft, which not only announced that 500 rideshare drivers would be coming to the city, but also offered new customers two free weeks' worth of rides. Yesterday, UberX just slashed its prices to be cheaper than New York City's yellow taxis, on a temporary basis. 

Allan Fromberg, a spokesperson for the TLC, told me there's space in the city for Lyft, if it's willing to change how it certifies drivers—something that isn't going to happen before Friday, when the company expects to start operating. The commision says it will "work with [Lyft] to help them comply with the laws and rules that are central to protecting public safety and consumer rights, as we have with many other companies with new and innovative approaches."

To operate legally, drivers have to be drug tested, take a defensive driving course, submit to a background check, and have their vehicle tested five times every two years.

Lyft, meanwhile, says that its drivers undergo a screening process "that is more stringent than what's required for NYC taxis, including a strict background check, vehicle inspection, and $1 million insurance." Lyft's training, as I mentioned, is just just two hours long. All Uber cars in the city operate with taxi certification, Lyft's wouldn't, at least not at first.  

Taxi drivers have generally been the main opponents of rideshare services like Lyft and Uber, but New York's 13,400 yellow cab drivers have little to worry about, at least for now. Lyft is launching only in Brooklyn and Queens for the moment, and 95 percent of all yellow cabs are hailed in Manhattan or at the airport.

And Lyft has a decent shot of eventually working out an agreement with the city. Uber has something of an uneasy alliance with the TLC at the moment—perhaps helped because the company lobbies city regulators. Lyft, meanwhile, has been playing that game too—it's spent $40,000 on lobbyists in the New York City.

Assuming Lyft manages to get off the ground and stay afloat in the Big Apple, it (and UberX) will be competing more seriously with the city's 6,000 new Boro Taxi drivers, aka "green cabs," which can be reserved much like an Uber or a Lyft and operate exclusively outside of Manhattan. 

"We're a service that really works in Brooklyn, that really works in Queens," Zimmer, said. "Those two areas are only connected by one subway line, the G. There's a chance for us to connect the two people there. We'll launch in Brooklyn and Queens and then later expand into Manhattan."

That is, if the company can manage to make peace with the city's established fleet of cabs.