A West Coast car-sharing service is facing off against Minneapolis City Hall, and regulators say they are prepared to ticket and impound cars they encounter after the service launches Thursday.
Lyft’s unique model relies on regular people essentially becoming chauffeurs in their own vehicles, picking up passengers who request a ride through the mobile app. The service — known for its signature pink mustaches on the front of the participating cars — is already up and running in more than 20 cities, including St. Paul.
Minneapolis officials told the company several months ago that city ordinance defines Lyft as a taxi service. That requires the vehicles and drivers to be licensed and inspected as taxis, which clashes with Lyft’s business model.
Lyft spokeswoman Paige Thelen said Tuesday that the company planned to start Thursday after talking with city leaders and coming to the conclusion that Lyft’s peer-to-peer operation was not considered a taxi or for-hire business. “We feel like we’re in a good place to move forward and launch in Minneapolis and continue conversations with them to find a solution that would be permanent,” Thelen said.
But the city’s head of business licensing, Grant Wilson, said the city will enforce city taxicab regulations if it sees Lyft cars operating around town. The city has already towed three vehicles operated by UberX, a similar company that Wilson said launched about a month ago in Minneapolis.
“We intend to provide the same enforcement if we find Lyft vehicles operating in the city, picking up passengers as if they were a licensed taxicab,” Wilson said. “We will ticket the driver, ticket the company and impound the vehicle for not having commercial insurance.”
Lyft says it carries insurance, but Wilson said the company has not provided a copy of it to any government agency.
Wilson added that a regional group of regulators has been discussing these car-sharing services and may have a metrowide regulatory program in place to help accommodate them by June. Lyft has registered four lobbyists with the state since September.
Before Wilson’s comments, Thelen said service in Minneapolis will begin Thursday at 4 p.m., which is when users will be able to request a ride through their smartphones. Thelen said the company already has Minneapolis drivers ready to start.
Lyft’s goal is to use cars more efficiently, reduce the need for car ownership and building a community. “Lyft is more than just a ride from point A to B. It’s about interacting with your driver, meeting new people and building relationships offline,” Thelen said.
Once someone has found a driver through the app, a picture of the driver and their vehicle are displayed on the phone. Thelen said the Twin Cities driver community includes people with varied backgrounds including an archaeologist, an opera singer and a children’s book author.
Upon reaching their destination, riders are given the prompt to make a “suggested donation” based on the time and distance of the trip. They can increase or decrease that payment as preferred.
Some big issues that have arisen in other areas revolve around background checks and insurance. Thelen said drivers are required to undergo a background check, driving record check, a phone interview and a 21-point vehicle inspection. The company provides $1 million in excess liability insurance.
Lyft’s official Minneapolis launch party is slated for 6 p.m. Thursday at 1400 12th Av. NE.