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Ride hailing gets public airing during Albright-Knox forum

Two portraits of ride-hailing services emerged Saturday at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.

Inside the gallery, supporters of allowing Uber and Lyft to operate in Upstate New York heralded such services as a key component in keeping the region's economic momentum on an upswing and making streets safer.

Outside the gallery, opponents of such services, which operate in 500 cities nationwide and in 77 countries, criticized how they treat and pay drivers.

In all, more than 40 people gave state legislators from Western New York an earful Saturday morning on how to craft a law that would bring app-based rail-hailing services to the area. About 220 people turned out at the gallery's auditorium for the first of four public forums on legislation to allow ride hailing. State senators Timothy M. Kennedy, D-Buffalo, and Chris Jacobs, R-Buffalo; Assemblywoman Crystal People-Stokes, D-Buffalo; Assemblyman Mickey Kearns, D-Buffalo; and Mayor Byron W. Brown said they supported bringing ride-hailing services to Western New York but wanted more input from the community before crafting a final deal with other legislators across the state.

Area arts and cultural organizations, the local head of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, bar and restaurant operators, disabilities groups, union supporters, tourism agencies, college students, social justice advocates and Uber and Lyft users and drivers in other cities turned out to voice an opinion in two minutes or less.

Following is a capsule  of what they had to say, including opinions shared before the start of the forum.

Arts and culturals: Make cultural gems easier to visit, ease parking congestion.

Mary Roberts, executive director of the Darwin Martin House, said she has encountered Frank Lloyd Wright fans who want to take a ride share from the Martin House in the city's Parkside neighborhood to Wright's other local masterpiece, the Graycliff Estate in Derby, but can't. "For the Buffalo-Niagara community to continue to prosper and grow its tourism potential, ride sharing really is an essential step forward into the future," she said. "People expect it. We see it all the time at the Martin House. But we look jayvee without it, to be honest." Donna Fernandes, president of the Buffalo Zoo, said taxis alone were not adequate for timely transportation in Western New York, and ride sharing could help people get to the zoo without having to drive and park their own cars. Susan Schwartz, director of marketing and communications for the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, said ride sharing could also alleviate parking issues around Kleinhans Music Hall, while encouraging more college students from the University at Buffalo and other campuses who don't have cars to take fuller advantage of Buffalo's cultural offerings.

Union leaders and social justice advocates:  Need livable wage and stable income for drivers.

John Mudie, president of the Buffalo Central Labor Council, AFL-CIO, said the only way local labor would support ride hailing would be if major providers Uber and Lyft began classifying drivers as employees, not independent contractors, with benefits and protections afforded to employees, including workers compensation, unemployment insurance, minimum wage laws, overtime and the right to organize. "Being classified as independent contractors lowers the bar for all," said Mudie. "Uber's business model is fundamentally predicated on turning full-time jobs into poverty-wage jobs and that's not right."

Shaun Szejnar of Amalgamated Transit Union 1342 and Will Yelder, an NFTA community board member, said they were concerned that opening the door to ride sharing would lead to disinvestment in public transit, which needs a dramatic infusion of funding. And Jim Anderson of Citizen Action told legislators that the ride-sharing bills they're currently considering would only serve to increase inequality in a city that has too much of it already.  "Yes, we all need more affordable and convenient transportation, but we don't need companies that promise convenience, but deny workers fair pay and benefits," said Anderson. And Harper Bishop, economic and climate justice coordinator for Open Buffalo, said ride hailing would undermine the work of immigrant and refugee taxi cab drivers trying to build a new life for their families in Buffalo.

People with disabilities: Immediate inclusion.

Handicap-accessible vehicles must be on the street and available to people with disabilities on the first day that ride sharing becomes available throughout the state, said Todd G. Vaarwerk, director of advocacy and public policy for Western New York Independent Living. "If they're not, this program is not ready," said Vaarwerk. Steven Truesdale, who led enforcement of the Americans with Disabilities Act in Erie County in the 1990s, said it would be "a slap in the face" to people with disabilities if ride-sharing services were invited into the state without being immediately accessible. "Now is the time to set the precedent that no service will be here unless it includes the whole population, all of us."

Regional tourism boosters:  Overdue, necessary to attract visitors, keep them longer and make them want to return.

Visitors who arrived in Buffalo last June for the NHL draft later complained on social media about the absence of ride sharing, said Patrick Kaler, president and chief executive officer of Visit Buffalo Niagara. And in March, 19,000 college basketball fans from other communities around the country that already have ride sharing will be coming to Buffalo for the NCAA men's basketball tournament. Those fans will be expecting the service here, said Kaler, and "unfortunately, we won't be able to offer it." And later this year, Buffalo will host the World Junior Hockey Championship, drawing hockey fans from nine countries where ride sharing is available in large cities, he said.

Elizabeth Obad of the Erie County chapter of Mothers Against Drunk Driving: Help combat DWI.

"People are being critically injured, crippled and maimed every day," said Obad. "We can save hundreds of lives if this is passed. We want people to have a safe ride home and the only way to get home safely is to have a sober designated driver." Obad's son, George, a 26-year-old sergeant in the Marines, died in a 1994 accident involving an impaired driver.

"Maybe if that impaired driver that night had had another way home, he wouldn't have killed my son," said Obad.

Bar and restaurant operators: Give people more transportation options.

Buffalo is becoming known as a food city, and visitors need to be able to get to restaurants more easily, said Sean Regan, Western New York chapter president of the New York State Restaurant Association. "Not everything is on Main Street. Not everyone can take the train to get to every restaurant in our city," said Regan. Ride sharing also would help make the city safer by allowing people who drank too much while at a bar or restaurant to easily hail a ride home without having to wait for a cab, he said.

Restaurateur Jay Manno said "not a day goes by" without someone asking him at one of his restaurants how they can get a ride in Buffalo with Uber or Lyft. "More than anything else this is really just about giving people options," said Manno, who used a ride-sharing service in a visit to Chicago. "It doesn't make any sense to not have it in place, especially in this city with the growth that we're going through right now."

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