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Ride hailing lifts off in Western New York

To the delight of consumers – and the chagrin of taxi cab companies – Uber and Lyft officially opened for business in Western New York at 12:01 a.m. Thursday.

Jeff Whacker, of Snyder, was among the first drivers to rove for rides shortly after midnight on Hertel Avenue. It started out slow. He checked out UB South and the airport with little luck. His first request came an hour later as he headed home.

"I live in Snyder and the request was in Getzville," Whacker said. "A little far, but I took it. I'm glad I did."

The ride was three young people going to Jim's Steakout on Transit Road who took pictures of their first Buffalo Uber ride along the way.

"They liked it when I told them they were my first passengers," Whacker said. "I took them to get their food then back home. They were a fun bunch to drive."

For drivers like Whacker, it's been a long wait. New York was the last state in the country to legalize ride-hailing companies, second only to Alaska. In April, after much lobbying, political wrangling and strong support from Gov. Andrew E. Cuomo, the legislature passed laws that made it possible for companies like Uber and Lyft to operate here.

Bruce Popko, chief operating officer of Pegula Sports & Entertainment, called the arrival of ride-hailing services a "game changer" for fans traveling to Buffalo Bills games.

As ride hailing hits the streets in Buffalo Niagara, consumers, drivers and local transportation companies alike will be watching closely.

Will there be enough passengers for all the eager, first-time drivers? Will enough drivers be Uber and Lyft certified to meet the pent-up demand?

Uber driver Simon Lissner started near Kissing Bridge at 7:30 a.m. and got a fare from Orchard Park to Buffalo.

But he soon discovered one downside to the cashless service -- the app does not yet allow tipping with a credit card. Without cash, his first passenger did not leave a tip.

Bill Yuhnke, owner of Liberty Yellow Cab in Buffalo, has said companies such as Uber and Lyft enjoy unfair advantages, and even put passengers at risk because they are not finger printed the way cab drivers are. His company, and others like it, stand to lose a lot of business – and even employees – to ride-hailing apps.

Drivers are hoping Uber will be a reliable source of income. Rob Gagliardi, a cashier living on the West Side, said he is ready to work hard but has to wait and see if the numbers will pan out in his favor.

"I'm going to give it a shot and see if I can make some money," he said.

The arrival of ride-hailing services in the Buffalo region drew plenty of reaction on social media.

Mayor Byron W. Brown was among the people hailing a ride to work on Thursday.

Kelsey Haim, who does not own a car, said she has had bad luck with cabs in the past and hopes ride-hailing will be more reliable. The Wheatfield resident said she plans to use the app to get to doctors' appointments, grocery stores and out to places such as Canalside with friends. She's glad the wait for Uber and Lyft is over.

"It's about time," she said.

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