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Taxis, hit hard by Uber and Lyft, press city to change rules

City inspections. Taxi stands. License fees and background checks. Set rates and penalties.

The owners of some of Buffalo's largest cab companies say a long list of regulations for taxis puts them at an unfair disadvantage. Six months after Uber and Lyft hit city streets, cab companies are renewing calls for the city to treat the taxi industry and new ride-hailing services the same.

"Either regulate all of us, or don't regulate any of us at all," said Bill Yuhnke, president of Liberty Yellow Cab. "We can't compete with one hand tied behind our back."

Yuhnke and the owner of Airport Taxi last week asked the Buffalo Common Council to either peel back city regulations on taxi and livery companies or hold ride-hailing companies to the same standards.

Without it, they say, a number of small taxi companies could go out of business.

When at the wheel, Liberty Yellow Cab executive class driver Tyrell Adams can easily communicate with passengers and explain how to use their "Curb" app to pay for their fare. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

"The city has determined it's in the best interest of its citizens to regulate transport," said Robert Boreanaz, an attorney representing Airport Taxi in Kenmore. "But if unregulated transport is OK, they need to deregulate taxi cabs so they can compete unrestricted on an even playing field."

City codes require cab companies and independent taxi drivers to purchase mileage-tracking taximeters, pay for a $125 license and undergo a background check. They're required to have their vehicles inspected by the city, their taximeters tested and calibrated and they can't charge more than $3 per mile for standard fares.

Taxi drivers are also limited in the ways they can solicit customers, restricted to certain places they can wait for fares and are required to carry omnibus insurance in amounts set by the state. There are also regulations and conditions about signage, partitions, licensing, records, fees, advertising, identification and rates, among other details. If taxis don't comply, they're penalized.

Uber and Lyft have their own requirements, as well as some Department of Motor Vehicles rules, but they're not regulated or enforced by the city.

Airport Taxi said it has seen a 50 percent decrease in its business since Uber and Lyft began operating in Western New York.

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Yuhnke said he invested more than $500,000 in his business over the past three years to prepare for Uber's arrival. He implemented automated call-taking software, created a ride-hailing app and a wireless hotel call button, eliminated the company's call center and outsourced those 20 jobs to the Philippines. Those measures have allowed him to prevent profit losses, he said.

Other, smaller cab companies have told him they'll be out of business within a year if things stay the same, he said.

Common Council Member Richard A. Fontana said he is willing to work with cab companies on their concerns, but isn't sure there's much the city can do that would make a difference. He said licensed taxi companies act as an ambassador for the city, so drivers and cars need to be checked for safety and cleanliness before they hit the streets.

"I don't see how $100 and an inspection is putting anyone out of business. It's nothing too crazy," he said. "I'd use it to my advantage; 'Inspected by the City of Buffalo. Call us first before you get in some stranger's car.'"

Another point of contention has been "surge" pricing. Uber and Lyft are allowed to raise their rates according to supply and demand. Uber regularly raises its prices by three times its normal rates during busy hours in busy locations. Rates have even surged by as much as five or six times, according to local Uber drivers. Cab companies, which must charge no more than $3 per mile, refer to it as price gouging.

But Fontana said it's up to consumers to decide whether they would like to pay more for an Uber or Lyft instead of taking a taxi.

"How is it that taxis can't compete if Uber is charging double? That doesn't make any sense to me." Fontana said. "It's like saying, 'There's a pizzeria next door to me. They don't have to get a health inspection and they charge twice as much as we are, but they're killing us.'"

Liberty said it's optimistic the Council can help address some of the company's concerns soon. If not, Yuhnke said he may keep his cabs out of the city on New Year's Eve, one of the busiest ride-hailing nights of the year. He also opted not to sponsor the city's New Year's Eve ball drop for the first time in years.

"It's not a protest, it's a signal that something has to change," Yuhnke said.

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