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Rochester, get ready to ride share

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If all goes according to plan, Uber and Lyft will take to Rochester's streets starting June 29.

That's the date ride sharing will become legal in New York, capping a multi-year legislative and public relations saga. Uber and Lyft have made it clear that they expect to have drivers on Rochester's streets that day, picking up passengers who've punched the pertinent info into either company's app.

Both companies say they've already recruited a few thousand Upstate drivers; neither has released a specific count by city or by the broader region. According to a city spokesperson, Uber drew about 250 people to a job fair at Rochester City Hall May 31. Lyft representatives say the company plans to hold recruitment events in the coming days or weeks.

In other words, the rubber is finally meeting the road for Upstate ride sharing.

Nobody really knows where this modern take on the taxi industry is headed with its frantic, workaholic, tech start-up culture and its brash, entrepreneurial corporate mentality. But Rochester's now along for the ride.

Ride sharing supporters talk about the industry's potential to create jobs and boost economic activity. Mayor Lovely Warren, an ardent supporter, says that increasingly, ride sharing is something millennials and business people demand – especially those coming in from out of town or who court clients and talent from other places. In short, ride sharing will help Rochester compete with other cities, Warren says.

"To be able to provide these options, not only for job opportunities but also for those that are looking for ways to get around safely, is something we want to be able to offer our citizens, and we're thankful that the state has given us the ability to do that," Warren says.

Visit Rochester CEO Don Jeffries, who spoke during a roundtable on Uber that City Hall held the same day as the job fair, also believes ride sharing will help the city compete. When his organization bids to bring various large meetings and conferences to Rochester, he said, one of the first questions it has to answer is whether Uber and Lyft are available in the city.

"We're automatically at a disadvantage," Jeffries said.

But ride sharing also comes with some problems and, in the case of Uber, some baggage. Uber has been accused of treating its drivers poorly; they're independent contractors and not employees. It's dealing with a few scandals, too: it just fired 20 corporate employees as the result of an investigation into sexual harassment complaints, and it ordered another 30 workers into training.

And neither Uber nor Lyft has ever turned a profit, though Lyft is closer, according to media reports.

As ride sharing speeds forward, Rochester and New York State are going to have to deal with some critical issues. These are matters of fairness that in some instances will affect people's jobs and in others will determine whether some residents can even access the new transportation services.

State lawmakers and regulators punted on any requirement for drivers to serve people with disabilities, particularly those who are not able-bodied. Instead, the law set up a task force, which will provide transportation network companies with recommendations for making their services more accessible.

Ericka Jones, systems advocate with the Center for Disability Rights, says the state has a history of forming these sorts of boards, but it doesn't always listen to the disability community and often don't result in substantial change.

"If I could make a broader plea to the community, I would just ask them to look at the bigger picture here," Jones says. "Why would we support exclusion in our community when we already have that in so many other portions of the community?"

Uber and Lyft do reach out to the deaf and blind communities, and they instruct drivers to accommodate people with walkers, folding wheelchairs, and scooters under threat of contract termination if they don't.

The drivers are also supposed to accept riders with service animals, though a growing number of news articles detail instances where those riders have been rejected. And potential riders with motorized wheelchairs may have difficulty accessing Uber or Lyft rides, Jones says.

"That's creating a hierarchy and a divide in our community," Jones says.

Drivers in some cities with ride sharing have outfitted their vehicles to be more accessible. Jones rode in one during a visit to Washington, D.C., she says: a minivan or SUV with an automatic ramp installed in it, so riders could wheel up through the rear gate, she says.

In Philadelphia, Uber offers drivers incentivized leases on modified minivans as a way to boost its service to riders with wheelchairs.

Jones says she'd like to see the companies offer some sort of incentive for accessible vehicles in New York.

"There are solutions, and they're not terribly costly," she says.

Taxi drivers and companies, as well as their labor allies, say competition from Uber and Lyft isn't their major concern. It's that they aren't competing on a level field.

Rochester's tax drivers have to abide by a strict city ordinance that restricts everything from the rates they can charge to the types and colors of vehicles they can drive. They have to be licensed by the city, and they have to pass a comprehensive criminal background check that includes fingerprinting. Between licensing fees and insurance, each driver faces about $5,000 a year in costs, not including things such as fuel and maintenance, says Shirley Sobczak, a Workers United Rochester Regional Joint Board organizer who's advocated for Rochester taxi drivers.

Under the state's new laws, Uber and Lyft have to carry insurance that covers any in-service driver for up to $1.25 million. Drivers will need only a valid New York drivers' license, and they won't have to pay for any additional credential. They'll also have to pass a criminal background check performed either by the ride sharing company or its contractor, but they won't have to be fingerprinted.

The regulations also require ride sharing apps to show any charges up-front.

Sobczak and taxi representatives plan to meet with city officials to examine the local taxi laws, and they hope that the city rolls back some regulations and fees, she says. Changes of that nature could help make the taxi industry more viable, she says.

During the May roundtable at City Hall, Uber's New York policy director Josh Gold told the drivers that ride sharing should help their business, since Uber's often-stated goal is to lessen people's reliance on personal car ownership.

"You have people start to make choices about whether or not they need, a family needs, that second car," Gold said during an interview before the May 31 roundtable. "And you've got more people moving into downtowns without even purchasing a car, and that grows the pie for other modes of transportation, like the bus system, like bike sharing. It presents new opportunities for cities to think about pedestrian use, but also presents opportunities for taxi drivers."

But the local taxi drivers and their allies don't buy that argument. There aren't enough customers in the city to support the taxis and potentially thousands of Uber and Lyft drivers, so someone is going to end up losing work, Sobczak says. And she fears it'll be the professionals.

"It is cheaper, but the thing of it is, you pay for what you get and you get what you pay for," Sobczak says.

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