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Lyft gets set to lift off in Houston

Another option for getting a ride.

Prepare to see see pink-mustachioed cars roaming around the city as San Francisco-based car sharing company Lyft launches in Houston on Friday.

Lyft is an app-based service that allows anyone to register as a driver and use their own car to make money by giving other people a ride. People needing a ride log in to choose the nearest car from an online database, then they can call the driver directly to request a pick up.


Lyft is launching at Hughes Hanger on Washington Feb. 21 and is already accepting applications from potential drivers. The company claims drivers can make $800 every weekend.

That’s the short version of the story. The longer version makes it clear this is an incomplete beginning.

An app-based ridesharing service is charging into the Houston market without waiting for the city to revise rules that could subject the company and its drivers to fines if customers paid for their rides.

But the company, Lyft, is avoiding any immediate confrontation with city officials by temporarily refraining from charging or accepting donations. The city, meanwhile, will continue work on changes in its taxi and limousine ordinance that could enable Lyft and similar services to operate and accept payments.

The company, which connects riders with drivers who use their own vehicles, has evaluated the city’s ordinance and believes existing law allows it to operate, Lyft spokeswoman Erin Simpson said.

The service doesn’t charge a prescribed fee – payments are made via mobile phone and are technically donations – and it conducts its own background checks of drivers.

“Lyft is not a taxi or limo service,” Simpson said. Houston officials disagree, however, saying the city ordinance covers all sorts of fees and tips.

“There are some working girls that work the streets of Houston who say, ‘We’re legal because it is just a donation,’‚ÄČ” Mayor Annise Parker said Wednesday. “I’m sorry, we will enforce our ordinances.”

After more detailed conversations on Wednesday, the company indicated it would – for an unspecified time – forgo any exchange of money between drivers and riders, said Christopher Newport, chief of staff for the city’s regulatory affairs department.

Anyone who accepts payment for a ride would be operating an illegal taxi service, Newport said. And Lyft could be cited for operating an unregulated dispatch service by connecting drivers and riders, he said.

This free start gets them off the hook for now, with the forthcoming changes to city code the finishing piece of the puzzle. Here’s some background info on Lyft sent to me by a company representative. It’s different than Uber, which is more like a traditional livery service, but similar in general to UberX. Speaking of UberX, last night I received an email from an Uber representative, with the following news:

Starting tonight at 7pm, uberX will be hitting the roads in Houston, for a limited time, delivering the Uber magic Houstonians have been demanding for months. The service will be free for users during this limited period.

Game on, then. Uber is the better known name, and they have the two different services to offer. Lyft stresses its custom insurance policy, background check and safety inspection of the cars, and its casual, friendly vibe – you sit in the front seat and pay what you want via the smartphone app, with no money changing hands – as its selling points. Drivers work their own hours, though I wonder how much capacity they’ll have during this no-fee opening period; same for UberX. The Houston Business Journal suggests we’re looking at a six to eight week timeline for Council action, and I don’t know if either of them can maintain that policy for that long.

In any event, as I said in that previous post, I see services like Uber and Lyft as another viable transportation option that allows people to be a little less dependent on owning their own car. Having options like these, in conjunction with better transit and complete streets, will do much to make the dense development we’re seeing in the urban core that much more attractive and livable. The Chron editorialized for Lyft in December, calling on Council to make the changes necessary to Chapter 46 to allow services like Lyft and Uber. That process will begin soon, and I am looking forward to the discussion. The Highwayman and Texpatriate have more.

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