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Ride-hailing is here. Who's driving?

West Side resident Carolyn Taggart likes the idea of setting her own hours.

Ann Taylor, of Amherst, is retired and wants to stay busy.

Maria Sanchez, of Buffalo, spends half of her time "driving somebody somewhere" and figured she might as well get paid for it.

All three recently applied to drive for ride-hailing company Uber, which will begin operating in Western New York on Thursday along with Lyft.

They see it as a fun way to make money, with a flexible schedule and autonomy. But a recent spate of bad press for Uber and ride-hailing in general, including claims that drivers don't earn as much as they're led to believe, threatens to dampen driver excitement.

Until recently, ride-hailing companies were not legally allowed to operate in upstate New York. The companies lobbied for a change, pointing out that New York and Alaska were the only states in the country not to allow ride-hailing. In April, the legislature passed laws that made it possible for companies like Uber and Lyft to operate here.

Taggart is among thousands of people in upstate New York State who are ready to take a shot driving for ride-hailing companies. Bright and outgoing, she likes to work independently, loves to drive and is looking for work that will let her fill in hours between other part-time jobs.

Driving won't be a "buttoned-down corporate job," she said. She can be herself. She can turn the ride-hailing app on and off whenever she pleases. And she can take time off for as long as she wants, whenever she wants.

"Working in a cube farm was unappealing and deadening," she said. "This has me excited and hopeful that, as I get older, I can do something I have more control over."

But some potential drivers are tempering expectations.

Molly Cox of Ransomville drove for a ride-hailing service when she lived in Texas. She said the trick to making the gig profitable is to drive during peak hours, when demand is highest and rates are often higher. But that usually meant working in the middle of the night. A driver she knew worked diligently from 3 a.m. until noon, then again from 4 p.m. to midnight, every single day. He often made $1,800 a week, she said.

Cox had hoped to drive during the day so she could earn money while her children were in school, yet still be available to send the kids off in the morning and greet them when they returned. As it turned out, she said, those were the slowest hours with the lowest demand. Some days, she would barely make $20 total. Some rides brought in as little as $2.

"I ended up losing money in the long run," she said. "A whole day of driving at times hardly covered the gas I used."

Recent scandals could also put a wet blanket on the enthusiasm. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick recently resigned in the wake of sexual harassment, discrimination and charges that the company had approved software that helped Uber drivers evade authorities in unauthorized markets. Incidences of violence against both drivers and passengers have been reported. And there are plenty of stories from current and former drivers that say ride-hailing business isn't all it's cracked up to be.

Lyft claims drivers can make up to $20 per hour in Buffalo, and Uber has said its national average is about the same. But an analysis done by the Washington Post found drivers often earn close to minimum wage and found an average Uber driver can earn as little as $6.60 per hour in a place such as Detroit. Roughly half a driver's logged hours are spent without passengers in the car – time that is not compensated, the paper said.

Uber and Lyft drivers are considered independent contractors and earn a base rate plus time or distance (or both) for each trip, but neither company has yet disclosed how much that base fare or additional rate will be. Uber takes a 25 percent cut of a driver's earnings, Lyft takes from 20 percent to 25 percent. Lyft currently allows tipping and Uber plans to roll it out soon. The pay rates also don't factor in fuel, taxes or vehicle depreciation, and there are no benefits or paid sick leave.

Still, Cox said she would consider driving for a ride-hailing service again in the future, once her kids are older and she's able to work better hours.

"I met some very interesting people through my travels," she said.

Taggart, the West Side resident who plans to drive for a ride-hailing service, said she and her daughter hailed an Uber while in Chicago and found it an ideal way to travel. She feels ride-hailing is just what Buffalo needs, especially with so many new events happening at Canalside and the Outer Harbor, and she wants to be a part of it.

"I'm psyched," she said.

Want to drive for Uber or Lyft? Here's how

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