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Lyft ride sharing takes off

FILE PHOTO: A Lyft ride-sharing driver drives up Cherokee Street with other drivers as company launched its service in St. Louis on Friday, April 18, 2014, despite strong opposition from the Metropolitan Taxi Commission. Lyft drivers use pink mustaches to mark their cars. Photo by Christian Gooden,


ST. LOUIS • Last weekend, city bargoers tapped their cellphones to order up rides home on the mobile app Lyft, stepping into a battle that threatens to disrupt the city’s taxi market.

For the first time, cars outfitted with pink mustaches on their grilles competed against licensed cabdrivers for customers, an event that unleashed a spirited debate on social media and sent officials running to the courthouse.

Lyft, a smartphone app that connects drivers with passengers, went operational at 7 p.m. on Good Friday. By Monday afternoon, St. Louis Circuit Judge David Dowd ordered Lyft shut down in the city and St. Louis County.

Dowd’s temporary order forbids Lyft and its drivers from doing business here. It also orders Lyft to disable its mobile application in the city and county.

Still, Paige Thelen, a spokeswoman for San Francisco-based Lyft, indicated that the company’s app will remain operational for now.

Thelen said the company did not receive a notice to appear in court before the injunction was issued. She called that a violation of Lyft’s due process rights.

“We will not let bullying and intimidation by the taxi commission keep the people of St Louis from exploring this new model of community-powered, safe rides and economic opportunity,” she added.

Lyft’s app remained operational on Monday evening, but it showed only a few cars offering rides. The city has been ticketing the Lyft drivers. The company says it will pay their fines.

Dowd’s order is in effect until May 6.

The Lyft app lets users look for members who offer rides. Passengers are encouraged to make a donation through the app when the ride is over, instead of paying a metered fare.

Lyft drivers use their own cars and keep a significant portion of the money offered, which is considered to be cheaper than traditional cab rides.

Drivers outfit their cars with friendly pink mustaches and brand themselves as separate from for-hire taxi services.

Lyft is particularly popular with younger, tech-savvy residents — a demographic that cities across the nation are hoping to attract.

“It’s seen as something trendy, progressive, new,” Umar Lee, 39, a licensed cabdriver in St. Louis, said in an interview. “The people promoting it are very detached from working-class people.”

Lee wrote a blog post over the weekend saying the company is part of “the Walmartization of America.”

“Part-time workers earning fast-food wages diminishing from the profession,” Lee wrote. “These drivers are in a very real sense akin to scab workers and, like the companies they drive for, represent regression and not progression.”

Cities across the nation have battled with companies such as Lyft and Uber, another ride-sharing service, but have done little to tamp down their popularity.

Now, Uber says it is also considering the St. Louis market.

“For months, residents across St. Louis have been opening the Uber app and asking us to come to town,” said Lauren Altmin, a spokesman for Uber. “We’re excited about the St. Louis market and look forward to exploring opportunities in town.”

“It’s important for consumers to have options,” said Thelen, of Lyft. “We don’t see this as a zero sum game.”

Unlike Lyft, traditional taxi services are heavily regulated by the region’s taxi commission.

“This has nothing to do with competition or class issues,” said Charles Billings, a lawyer for the St. Louis Metropolitan Taxicab Commission. “It’s just a matter of public safety for all involved. These Lyft drivers aren’t vetted.”

Billings also questioned the insurance coverage of the Lyft drivers.

“They are using personal automobiles, using personal insurance,” Billings said.

Thelen countered with a comparison chart, saying Lyft requires five times the insurance coverage placed on standard cabs, mandating $1 million in limited liability coverage.

Thelen also said the company performs more intensive background checks on its drivers, including screens for violent crime and sexual assault.

But Billings said that a Lyft driver had been arrested in St. Louis over the weekend on an outstanding felony warrant.  (St. Louis police said Billings was mistaken, and no such arrested had occurred.)

“We’re looking into that,” Thelen said Monday.

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Nicholas J.C. Pistor is a reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.