RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Internet-based ride-sharing has really taken off, to the point where, in a lot of major cities, you can use an app like Uber, or Lyft or Sidecar to hail a ride, with the touch of a screen. Some will cost you more than a cab, for the convenience, others cost less than a taxi. And for years, state and city transportation regulators have struggled to figure out what to do with these ride-sharing companies. As NPR's Nathan Rott reports, California recently took some steps towards legitimizing ridesharing.
NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Jimmy Lucia sits in his car in a fast food parking lot.
JIMMY LUCIA: Just waiting for another request right now.
ROTT: Lucia is a driver for Lyft, one of the biggest ridesharing companies here in Los Angeles. And Lucia is one of their most popular drivers. Because when he drives, he usually doesn't go by the name Jimmy Lucia.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hey Batman, are you on? Are you on?
ROTT: He goes by Batman. And on weekends, he dresses the part.
LUCIA: (in a low Batman voice) What can I do for you?
ROTT: In his day job, Lucia is actually an aspiring actor and movie director. Driving for Lyft is a way to make a little extra income. Even though, technically, the Dark Knight may be doing so illegally. There's a cease and desist order for Lyft and other ride sharing companies in the city of Los Angeles inspired largely by their business rivals - taxi drivers.
They complain that companies like Lyft are just unregulated modes of public transportation, a battle that's playing out in other cities from Washington D.C. to Washington state.
WILLIAM ROUSE: It's eating into our business. They're providing essentially the same service that we are without complying with all of the regulations that we have to comply with.
ROTT: That's William Rouse. He's the general manager of Yellow Cab Los Angeles - an operation that has over a thousand taxis here in the greater Los Angeles basin. He says that by dodging those regulations - like emissions standards and fare limits - the app-based companies have an unfair advantage.
ROUSE: All of our local governments mandate that we charge a set fare. We are not allowed to discount.
ROTT: And the ride-share companies are. Their fares are usually cheaper by about 20 percent. Rouse says that needs to be regulated for taxis to compete. Enter the California Public Utilities Commission. The PUC recently proposed a set of rules for ride-share companies - insurance requirements, driver background checks, drug tests.
It also puts all of the companies under a new legal name: Transportation Network Companies, or TNC's. Not taxis. Rouse thinks that's wrong. They collect fares, they meter rides. In his mind, they're taxis.
ROUSE: We think if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck, it's probably a duck. But the PUC probably thinks it's a giraffe. I don't know.
ROTT: The PUC still has to finalize those rules in September. But tech companies are taking the proposal as a win. John Zimmer is one of the co-founders of the ride-share company Lyft. He says that the P-U-C has set a precedent that others can follow nationally. And he thinks that they will. He's even been contacted by mayors, asking him to expand into their cities.
JOHN ZIMMER: I think the tides are turning. I think that people are realizing that we can improve safety for transportation, we can improve affordability for transportation, we can improve efficiency for transportation. And, you know, that's a good thing.
ROTT: Zimmer thinks that those things can happen along taxis. They can co-exist. But driving with Jimmy Lucia, you see that there's still a ways to go. He drives by a cab as he's headed to pick up a passenger, and the look he gets from its driver can best be described as steely.
LUCIA: I have a had a couple of times where they pull up to me and it looks like they want to say something. But I'm dressed as Batman and they just drive off.
ROTT: A strategy that's catching on. Nobody messes with the other new driver, Darth Vader, either. Nathan Rott, NPR News, Culver City, California.
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