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Buffalo without Uber? Some visitors think that's 'prehistoric'

The lack of ride-sharing alternatives to taxicabs in Buffalo is causing damage to the city's image among tourists and other visitors, several prominent business leaders said Wednesday.

Officials including HarborCenter President Michael Gilbert and Hyatt Regency Buffalo owner Paul Snyder said they've heard complaints from event attendees and hotel guests about the difficulty of getting rides in Buffalo.

They said visitors are impressed with the changes and new developments in Buffalo, and excited by the positive momentum. But then they get frustrated with the shortage of traditional taxis, and are surprised to learn that Uber, Lyft and similar alternatives are not available in Western New York because they're not allowed under state law.

"They thought we were prehistoric because we didn't have Uber," said Gilbert, who is also vice president of administration for Pegula Sports & Entertainment's Buffalo Sabres. "We've got people in that building almost every week. It's laughable that we don't have it. The single biggest complaint from the NHL draft was that we didn't have Uber."

Developer Paul Ciminelli called it "ridiculous," noting visitors don't necessarily have cars and don't want to drive when they're here. He cited the example of his two grown sons who came to town from New York City two weeks ago for a wedding and couldn't get a cab until 1 a.m.

"They're used to Uber and a really robust taxicab system. It's embarrassing that we don't have Uber," he said. "You would think the taxis would step it up.."

Gilbert called on Buffalo Place to take a lead role in lobbying for change, and Buffalo Place Chairman Keith Belanger said he would work with him on a coordinated response. Snyder also noted that some cities, like Austin, Texas, have adopted their own ride-sharing models and apps, separate from the bigger companies.

"It's terrible. "If it works everywhere else in the country, why doesn't it work here?" Gilbert said.

That might be OK if there were enough taxis for the need, but that's not the case. Visit Buffalo Niagara is also talking about the problem, said Snyder.

Uber and Lyft are transportation management companies that use smartphone apps to link passengers needing rides with drivers in their private vehicles. The services have become ubiquitous in many cities and states around the country as an attractive alternative to more expensive cabs, and Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown has said he wants Uber here.

Unlike traditional taxi drivers who are licensed and employed directly by a company, Uber and Lyft drivers are essentially independent contractors who make themselves available when they have time and a desire to log in. That flexibility makes it very appealing for drivers who want to earn a little extra money on the side through part-time employment.

But taxi companies are vehemently opposed to Uber, Lyft and similar firms, which they say threaten their businesses, destroy jobs and put passengers at risk because they are not commercially insured. The industry has estimated that 11,500 non-driver jobs would be lost in upstate New York and Long Island, while cab drivers themselves would switch over to the competing models.

So far, they've successfully kept the ride-sharing companies out of New York State, with the exception of New York City, where Uber operates as a commercial livery taxi with full-time licensed and insured drivers. Currently, 47 states allow ride-sharing, but New York law still does not permit non-taxis from picking up passengers for payment. A bill to change that has been held up in the state Assembly, despite passing the Senate, where Sen. Marc Panepinto, D-Buffalo, was one of the few upstate senators to vote against it.

Common Council President Darius Pridgen said the taxi lobby was strongly against Uber when the issue last came before the city's legislative body, "and there weren't a lot of loud voices to support it."

But that's changed, he added, as people have become much more familiar and comfortable with ride-sharing. "Let's get together and see how we can work this out," he said.

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