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Uber, Lyft shake up Pittsburgh’s transportation system

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Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Bryce Barth, 15 months, of Oakdale makes faces with his great-grandmother as his parents load their luggage into a taxi van outside of Pittsburgh International Airport in Coraopolis on Wednesday, March 30, 2016. The family had called for an Uber driver, but the car that arrived couldn't fit all the luggage and car seat of the traveling foursome.
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Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Taxi driver Jaouad Zair, 42, of Highland Park waits in the taxi queue outside of Pittsburgh International Airport in Coraopolis on Wednesday, March 30, 2016. Zair, who says he only wants enough money to live modestly and be healthy, says Uber and Lyft have affected taxi business substantially.
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Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
People load into taxis outside of the baggage claim wing at Pittsburgh International Airport in Coraopolis on Wednesday, March 30, 2016.
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Stephanie Strasburg | Tribune-Review
Taxis wait in a queue outside of Pittsburgh International Airport in Coraopolis on Wednesday, March 30, 2016.

William Buggs has been a cab driver for 13 years, but he might not make it to 14.

The East McKeesport resident, 65, is a Yellow Cab driver who works mostly at Pittsburgh International Airport, but his business has declined since the airport authority allowed ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft to start picking up and dropping off customers last summer, he said.

“When you quit making money, it’s time to go. Find something else to do,” said Buggs, who added he has increased his driving time from 10 hours a day to 16 to try to offset his losses.

Uber and Lyft drivers use their personal vehicles to transport passengers who request them with smartphones. Cab drivers whose bread-and-butter business is at the airport say their profits are being siphoned off by the ride-sharing companies, which don’t have to operate by the same rules as traditional cab drivers.

From June to December, cab drivers provided 123,376 passenger rides from the airport, which is 9 percent less than the 135,501 during the same period in 2014, according to data from the Allegheny County Airport Authority. Meanwhile, the number of flight passengers increased 1.6 percent in the same period.

In the same six-month period, Uber provided 43,285 rides from the airport and Lyft provided 2,785. The two companies are classified as transportation network companies.

Uber says increased competition has benefited consumers since it entered the Pittsburgh market in February 2014. At the end of 2015, one in six Uber trips in the Pittsburgh area took place in an area underserved by public transit, the San Francisco-based company said.

“In these past two years, Pittsburgh has welcomed Uber with open arms. We’re giving thousands of people a flexible way to earn extra income, connecting folks to reliable rides at the push of a button and improving mobility in every part of Pittsburgh,” said Jennifer Krusius, Uber’s general manager for Pittsburgh.

Uber and Lyft might be affecting more than cab business:

• Limo rides from the airport were down 4 percent to 41,130 during the second half of 2015.

• Customers’ self-parking in airport lots was down by 20,328 visits, or 3 percent, to 761,557 during the same period.

• Shuttle rides from the airport were down 9 percent to 10,138.

• The Port Authority of Alle­gheny County’s ridership on its 28X buses between Pittsburgh and the airport decreased 2.1 percent between 2014 and 2015. In the last half of 2015, it dipped 5 percent to 406,186.

Ridership numbers on the 28X could be fluctuating for a number of reasons, including the availability of Uber and Lyft, port authority spokesman Adam Brandolph said.

“However, since the 28X serves more than just the airport — it makes several stops between Oakland and Robinson Town Center — attributing the decrease in rider­ship to ride-sharing services is ultimately speculation,” he said.

Uber and Lyft were getting ticketed for picking up fares at the airport until June, when the airport authority granted the companies permits to operate there.

“The allowance (of Uber and Lyft) brought increased revenue to the airport as well as a legal operating structure for those companies,” said Robert Kerlik, airport authority spokesman.

Taxis and other types of ground transportation provide an important service to the airport’s passengers, but the airport authority’s decision to allow services from Uber and Lyft was in response to passenger demand and a changing marketplace, he said.

Three cab companies — Yellow Cab, Checker Cab and Veterans Taxi — also have permits from the airport authority to pick up fares at the airport.

Uber and Lyft pay the airport authority a $2.90 per-trip fee that is collected from the company. Each company also paid a $14,000 one-time security deposit, and each pays a $12,000 annual permit fee. But they are not allowed to wait for fares at the airport curb.

VetTaxi, operated by Star Transportation Group, pays a monthly commercial curb management fee of $1,500, plus a $660 annual permit fee, a $55 per-vehicle fee for standard-sized cars and a $2 per-trip fee.

Yellow Cab, operated by Pittsburgh Transportation Group, pays the authority more than $400,000 annually to service the airport, including a monthly commercial curb management fee of $5,200 and a $2 per-trip fee.

Uber drivers are unfairly allowed to operate under different regulations, cab drivers say. The PUC allows Uber and Lyft to raise their rates without PUC approval via surge pricing based on how much demand there is. Taxis cannot.

Some cab drivers are losing out to Uber drivers because cabbies aren’t willing to go into certain communities, such as the Hill District and Homewood, and they spend too much time waiting for passengers at the airport instead of staying busier by picking up shorter trips between neighborhoods, said John Allan, 50, who has been an Uber driver for six months. The Hill District and Homewood are predominantly African-American neighborhoods in Pittsburgh with high poverty.

“The money is not sitting at the airport. The money is staying on the road,” said Allan of Mt. Washington.

In early 2015, the state Public Utility Commission granted Uber and Lyft two-year experimental certificates to operate in the state.

Jamie Campolongo, president of Pittsburgh Transportation Group, said cab drivers in Pittsburgh hadn’t faced competition for many years, so they are struggling to adjust to change. Uber is simply picking up airport customers who have been used to using the service in other states, he said.

Yellow Cab has 300 taxi cabs and 435 drivers.

“We were severely impacted when Uber first came into the market, but now we’re kind of back to where we were,” Campolongo said. “There’s a lot of contemporaries across the country who can’t say that.”

About 18 months ago, Pittsburgh Transportation Group launched its owned ride-sharing service, Yellow Z, in which drivers use their own cars, but they don’t work at the airport, Campolongo said. Like Uber and Lyft drivers, they tend to be part-time drivers using the job to supplement their income, he said.

“And our cab drivers aren’t wild about them, either,” said Campolongo, who added there are 100 applications backed up for Yellow Z, and most of them are Uber drivers.

Tory N. Parrish is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-5662 or [email protected].

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