A taxi ride from the Buffalo Niagara International Airport to City Hall downtown typically costs at least $39.
If Uber or another ride-booking service were operating in Buffalo, the same ride could cost less than $20.
That’s why Uber has become a national, even international, rage. Uber drivers are picking up passengers in every large American city, but not Buffalo – now the largest city in the nation without Uber.
Why not Buffalo?
The answer can be found 288 miles to the east, in Albany. Ride-sharing services, which use mobile apps to connect passengers and drivers, are not permitted in New York State, except in New York City, under a special arrangement.
Uber claims that it would create close to 500 jobs in the Buffalo area, and more than 13,000 across the state, in its first year alone.
That’s why Uber has received plenty of upstate support, including from Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown. Still, the battle will be waged in the State Legislature this session.
“I think there’s a very strong possibility that Uber will be accepted statewide,” State Sen. Timothy M. Kennedy said. “I think there’s a growing desire to have Uber in New York State. I think it’s gaining traction and momentum.”
But getting through the Legislature may be difficult. Taxicab and limo companies, cabbies and many disabled people are lined up against the service.
These opponents say it would threaten the taxicab industry, costing at least 1,330 jobs in the Buffalo area alone, especially among support personnel such as dispatchers and mechanics. Opponents also say it would limit transportation options for the disabled. And they claim Uber would rely unfairly on independent-contractor drivers not subject to workers’ compensation, unemployment benefits and payroll withholdings.
“We’re not afraid of competition,” said Kevin Barwell of Buffalo, president of the Limousine, Bus, Taxi Operators of Upstate New York. “If they want to come in and compete, fine, if they’re on the same playing field.”
Supporters counter that Uber, which operates in 45 states, would provide flexible, part-time driving jobs for people needing extra income; increase access to small businesses; make communities safer by reducing drunken driving; serve underserved areas; and reduce discrimination against passengers living in tough neighborhoods.
And it would be faster and cheaper.
“Uber is a technology platform that connects drivers and riders,” said Josh Mohrer, general manager of Uber NYC. “Reliability is sort of our No. 1 priority. We want it to be as reliable as running water.”
Where Uber already operates, in most big cities in North America, taxi drivers and their Uber counterparts naturally have different views of the ride-booking service.
“Most people say it’s convenient, safe, (cheaper) and cashless,” said Sal, an Uber driver in Hamilton, Ont., who wouldn’t give his last name.
But Bill Cranston, a Hamilton cab driver for 43 years, had a different view.
“These people, as far as I’m concerned, are just parasites,” he said of Uber drivers. “They’re actually stealing business.”
In cities where Uber operates, people wanting a ride usually can get one in a few minutes by using their phone app to relay their current location, provide their destination, pay their fare and provide immediate feedback afterward. Uber officials say they offer a cheaper, more reliable option than taxis for passengers.
Using a smart phone app, two Buffalo News staff members ordered an Uber ride from inside a Hamilton mall late Wednesday morning and were told that the vehicle would reach them in eight minutes.
Seven minutes later, Sal called to say he was parked outside.
In the Uber model, drivers work as independent contractors, driving their own vehicles on a part-time basis.
Those drivers typically keep 75 to 80 percent of the fares, Mohrer said. After a $1.25 Rider Fee is subtracted from the fare, the driver keeps 80 percent of what is left, according to Uber’s general price structure. So in simple terms, a $21.25 Uber fare would leave the driver collecting $16. Out of that amount, the driver pays for gas, other vehicle expenses and taxes on the earnings.
But that model puts taxi cabs at a disadvantage, said Barwell, who also owns several local transportation services. Taxi cabs are regulated in New York State, which requires taxi or livery operators to have special insurance, registration and for-hire licenses.
“They want you to be able to operate your own vehicle, without for-hire insurance, without for-hire registration, without a for-hire license, and they want to be able to operate freely in the city without following the municipalities’ rules and laws,” Barwell said of ride-booking services like Uber and Lyft.
Bill Yuhnke, president of Liberty Yellow Cab in Buffalo, has been battling the ride-booking industry for several years.
These companies don’t have to follow the same guidelines, failing to provide adequate insurance or extensive background checks for their drivers, he claims. That, in Yuhnke’s mind, creates more risk for drivers and riders and allows Uber to operate more cheaply and offer lower fares.
“They say they’re cheaper,” Yuhnke said. “Absolutely, they’re cheaper. Their expenses are much cheaper.”
It’s not clear how much cheaper Uber would be in Buffalo, compared to taxis. While waiting for state approval, Uber has yet to set its rates for the Buffalo area.
“It will be affordable,” Mohrer said. “We don’t set fares in a city until we launch.” But it is safe to say that Uber’s fare for the Buffalo airport-to-City Hall ride would be cheaper than the typical $39 to $42 taxi fare.
An online search for New Jersey’s current Uber rate shows the $1.25 Rider Fee, plus $1.10 per mile and 18 cents per minute.
If that same rate applied in Buffalo for the airport-City Hall trip, which is about 10 miles and 20 minutes during non-rush hour, that adds up to $15.85.
Uber fares, though, are tricky.
A comparison by the business website Business Insider for 21 American cities where Uber operates shows that taxi fares in those cities ranged from 1.7 times as high as Uber to just below Uber rates. However, Uber drivers aren’t tipped, and if a 20 percent tip were added to the taxi ride, that would bring the taxi charge close to twice the Uber rate in several cities.
Critics, though, are quick to point out Uber’s “surge pricing.”
That policy allows Uber to charge higher prices during peak demand, thus encouraging more drivers to become available. Several media have reported that at peak times with especially high demand, such as after midnight on New Year’s in New York City, the surge prices can be up to nine times the usual amount.
Uber says it makes that known in advance to the rider.
“We take notifying you of the current pricing seriously,” Uber states on its website. “To that end, you’ll see a notification screen in your app whenever there is surge pricing. You’ll have to accept those higher rates before we connect you to a driver.”
The Uber side
Uber officials come armed with plenty of bullet points supporting “Uber’s Impact on Buffalo.”
• Uber is simple, for both drivers and riders.
Using an Uber app, riders can tap their phones to order their rides and pay. Drivers also have the same information at their fingerprints, reducing communication problems, misunderstandings or need for third-party connections.
• Uber increases access to small business. Roughly 30 percent of Uber trips in Hoboken, N.J., where the ride-booking service operates under its normal model, start or end at a small business.
• Uber improves existing transit networks. The service makes it easier to live and conduct business in neighborhoods poorly served by buses, subways and taxis. And it complements, rather than competes with, public transit, in a sense completing “the last mile” of a commuter’s trip. In Connecticut, for example, 29 percent of Uber trips start or end at metro train stations.
• All Uber drivers must undergo “extensive background” screening, including a Social Security trace, a criminal-background check and pulling the person’s Motor Vehicle Registration file. Those searches include databases for sex offenders and suspected terrorists.
• Uber provides more safety and convenience before, during and after the ride.
Riders don’t have to stand in a busy street to hail a cab or wait outside; they know when their ride is coming. Riders and drivers don’t have to carry cash. These rides aren’t anonymous transactions; a loved one can track the vehicle’s location, especially helpful for a parent worried about a child rider.
• Uber’s commercial insurance policy, providing up to $1 million in liability, applies for the duration of the shared ride.
“The entire time our app is on, the insurance is in effect,” Mohrer said.
• And more than 4,000 New York State residents currently drive with Uber in nearby Connecticut and New Jersey.
The case against Uber
Uber’s critics, like Yuhnke and Barwell, take special exception to the ride-booking service’s points about insurance and background checks.
Yuhnke objected to Uber’s insurance claims, about its $1 million liability insurance. “Unfortunately, it’s going to take a death or serious injury to see if this magical insurance policy of theirs will pay off,” Yuhnke said. “I believe that policy has no weight to it in the state of New York.”
And Yuhnke scoffs at Uber’s claims of extensive background checks on drivers. “I believe their background checks are a farce,” he said.
As evidence, Yuhnke pointed to a website, www.whosdrivingyou.org, an initiative of the taxi and limo industries, which details more than 100 incidents, including lawsuits and criminal allegations, involving Uber and Lyft in the last three years.
“Uber’s process for (checking out) drivers is dangerously negligent,” the website states. “Neither Uber nor Lyft uses fingerprints or law enforcement to background-check their drivers …
The result is a series of incidents involving ‘ride-sharing’ passengers being harmed and criminal offenders behind the wheel.”
The website then lists dozens of cases, some involving lawsuits, that allege the following: deaths from Uber and Lyft accidents; assaults, sexual attacks and harassment by drivers; felons behind the wheel; and driving under the influence.
Uber’s opponents wonder why the ride-booking service can’t operate upstate the same way it does in New York City, as a commercial livery service operating under the same licensing and insurance regulations as taxis do.
Critics also are concerned that not everyone will have access to Uber, including the disabled lacking physical access and poor people who may not have credit cards, debit cards or smartphones.
Yuhnke knows what he will do if and when Uber is approved in Buffalo and the rest of upstate.
“I would immediately request 100 percent deregulation of ground transportation in the city of Buffalo,” he said.