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As Uber and Lyft take off, cab drivers feel left behind

Independent cab owner Harunur Bhuiyan had been lined up and waiting three hours for fares across the street from the Hilton Garden Inn Downtown on Thursday when he saw a Lyft driver zoom up, pick up a passenger and drive away. After 7 and a half years of driving, he wondered if this was the beginning of the end.

Across town, Simon Lissner of Glenwood had just wrapped up his second Uber fare ever. After getting two high-quality fares right out of the gate, he was abuzz with excitement about his new side gig as a driver.

Thursday was a day of highs and lows for people hoping to drive for a living in Western New York, as ride-hailing apps such as Uber and Lyft went live in upstate New York.

Veteran cab drivers braced for a major shakeup. New ride-hailing drivers looked forward to new opportunities.

"Maybe I'll have to quit this and look for a new job," said Bhuiyan, the cab driver, as he waited for fares. "What are you gonna do?"

Lissner, one of thousands of people in New York who have signed up to drive for Uber, spent two months studying the ride-hailing industry with his wife. His app pinged almost immediately Thursday morning with a potential passenger looking for a ride from Orchard Park to Buffalo.

"I couldn't wait to get started because I didn't know how it was going to be," said Lissner, who plans to retire soon from the military after 33 years. "But it's pretty good so far."

Driver Simon Lissner drops off his second-ever fare on Pearl Street outside the Hyatt Regency in Buffalo. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

For drivers like Lissner, it had 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 M. Cuomo, the legislature passed laws that made it possible for companies like Uber and Lyft to operate here.

The apps went live at 12:01 a.m. Thursday. A 1-mile ride to the Dapper Goose on Amherst Street kicked off Uber's upstate debut two minutes later, said Uber senior public policy manager Stephanie Smith. She declined to detail how many rides Uber handled during its first day in Western New York.

By morning, cab drivers were already feeling the impact.

From 6:30 a.m. to noon, the line of taxis outside the Hyatt Regency hardly budged, said independent taxi owner Joseph Navaneethan as he leaned against the wall of the hotel and waited for fares.

Navaneethan doesn't blame the customers for choosing another option. Everyone is hurting and needs to save money where they can, he said.

"My own wife would probably take Uber if it was cheaper," he said.

Navaneethan said he is barely making enough money to make ends meet.

Taxi drivers Joseph Navaneethan, left, and Vijay Marthandan wait for fares on Pearl Street outside the Hyatt Regency Buffalo, on Thursday. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

Unlike a traditional cab service, which charges a set regulated fee per mile, ride-hailing services can charge variable rates.

If Uber drivers charge less, Navaneethan can't imagine how they will make money.

"After they pay for gas, insurance, taxes, maintenance on the car, taxes, they're going home with nothing," he said.

Gazy Shwani has driven cabs for 34 years. Buffalo's passenger population is small, he said, and now there will be a lot more people fighting for the same fares.

"We don't have enough business for ourselves. Why would you bring in Uber?" he said.

Shwani is retired now, driving on the side for pocket money. But he worries about the friends he has who still make their living with their cabs, most of whom are barely supporting their families now as it is.

He doesn't mind the competition, but can't understand why ride-hailing companies don't have to play by the same rules as traditional cabbies.

Those who have advocated for allowing Uber and Lyft, meanwhile, say the new services will expand customer options and spur competition.

"This is a game changer," Bruce Popko, chief operating officer of Pegula Sports & Entertainment, said during a news conference touting the start of the services on Thursday.

State Sen. Chris Jacobs, R-Buffalo, said he sees plenty of room for ride-hailing services to co-exist with independent cabs. Unlike New York City where there is an established taxi community, Buffalo’s market has room to expand, he said.

“It’s stepping up everybody’s game," Jacobs said. "And I just think it’s going to be an overall good."

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