New unregulated ride-sharing services Lyft and uberX are luring drivers from taxi companies in Fayette County as the platforms offer comparable wages without fees and oversight imposed on traditional for-hire transportation services.
Lexington's two largest transportation companies saw their numbers of permitted drivers dwindle slightly in 2014. Bluegrass of Lexington LLC has 70 permitted drivers in 2014, down 13 from 2013, according to city records. United Transportation Co. Inc. has 116 drivers, down six from 2013. LexCab owner Abe Owen believes some drivers are opting to work for ride shares, which connect those in need of a ride with drivers via a GPS-enabled smartphone app.
"Where did they go? It seems logical that they went to work for the ride-share companies," Owen said. "They didn't just all quit."
Michele Delbridge recruits drivers for Lyft, which started offering its services in Lexington in April. She said several taxi drivers have expressed interest in switching to the ride-share platform. Delbridge was a Lyft driver initially.
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"I've had a few taxicab drivers from a few taxicab services apply for Lyft, whether or not they've been approved I can't say," she said. "I've had some meetings with some of them." The drivers voiced concerns about "what they all have to go through to just to be able to drive for a taxicab" compared to Lyft's driver selection process.
Ride-sharing drivers in Lexington pay no fees and do not have to get city permits. A Lyft or uberX driver fills out an application and passes background and driving-record checks.
Owen said switching to rideshares like Lyft and uberX is potentially more lucrative for cabdrivers. Getting started in the cab business costs drivers roughly $225.
"If you don't have to go through the permitting every year and paying the taxes and all the other stuff that cab drivers as independent contractors are required to pay, it makes sense that the possibility of you making more money per ride as a driver is greater with Lyft than it is as a cab company," Owen said.
Lyft and uberX say their fares are less than those charged by cabs, but fewer expenses can make the switch worth it for cabdrivers.
Ride-share companies have sparked debate across the country as taxi companies and lawmakers grapple with how to compete with and regulate the innovative platforms. Lexington residents have more options for transportation, but local cab companies are waiting to see what, if any, regulations will be put on the ride shares.
An Urban County Council committee meeting on the topic is scheduled for 1 p.m. Sept. 16. Councilwoman Peggy Henson, a committee member, said she is gathering research and information.
"This is not about unfair competition," said Steve Coston, the owner of Yellow Cab Inc. in Lexington and Louisville. "This is about very practical public safety measures that have already been put in place, and we're allowing these companies, for some reason, to operate outside of those."
Owen launched LexCab in May 2014, around the time that Lyft arrived in Lexington. Ride-share services should face the operating rules he does, Owen said.
"If you're picking people up and charging them a fee to take them somewhere, to me you are operating a vehicle for hire," he said. "If you're operating a vehicle for hire, you should operate under some regulation. Right now, quite frankly, it is the wild, wild West; there is no regulation for them."
Lyft spokesperson Katie Dally said the number of Lyft drivers "is growing on a daily basis," but she did not provide a total.
Owen said he fears the trend of taxi drivers switching to ride-share companies will limit access to hired transportation for people without smartphones.
"What is going to happen to those folks who need rides every day to get to work? Or to get to the doctor or to get prescriptions filled? If there are less cabdrivers, there's going to be less access to the public," he said.