In 2005, a botched trip to a Pirates game made Joshua Freedman realize the problem with Pittsburgh cabs.
“We got totally shafted by the taxi company and missed half the game,” says Freedman. “It was terrible.”
Since its Pittsburgh launch last May, Freedman says CabbyGo—which is licensed to operate throughout Pennsylvania, except in Philadelphia—has hired just over 100 drivers and serves up to 75 ride requests per day. He estimates that the CabbyGo app has been downloaded more than 5,000 times in Pittsburgh.
Freedman and his company are now part of a growing transportation phenomenon that has taken over cities across the country. Ride-hailing services, specifically app-based rideshare entities that allow drivers to use their own vehicles, have grown so fast that states have clamored to keep tabs on them. Last year, Governor Tom Wolf finally made ridesharing legal in Pennsylvania when he signed Senate Bill 984, a law that established the framework for the operation of so-called transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft.
It also included a number of driver and consumer protections, such as requiring insurance coverage and criminal background checks for drivers.
But ride-hail services officially becoming part of Pittsburgh’s transportation landscape means more choices for consumers, as new companies like CabbyGo throw their hats in the ring.
So how does the average passenger narrow down which one to choose?
Fares would be the most obvious determining factor and one that Freedman understands. He knew he had to come up with a concept that would set him apart from his competitors. He settled on a basic system where drivers bid on rides and customers can choose based on price or other factors, such as proximity or the vehicle type.
He then ditched surge pricing, which involves inflating ride rates during especially active pickup times, such as rush hour, weekend nights or high-traffic holidays like New Year’s Eve. The practice has led to horror stories from ride-hail passengers forced to pay exorbitant or downright outrageous fees—one viral cautionary tale saw a Canadian Uber customer hit with a $1,114 bill for a one-hour ride.
In 2015, the Pittsburgh Transportation Group considered using surge pricing after transforming Yellow Cab into the app-based transportation service zTrip and adding their now seemingly non-existent rideshare service, Yellow Z. Ultimately, they decided against it.
“We don’t do surge pricing,” said zTrip president Jamie Campolongo during a 2016 interview.
The practice becomes even more troublesome in light of a new study by researchers at the University of Warwick in England, which found that Uber drivers in London and New York manipulate the app into raising surge prices by tricking it into believing there’s a shortage of available cars.
Right now, Uber and Lyft still allow surge pricing.
There’s also convenience, a factor that puts the more far-reaching Uber and Lyft at an advantage. Regardless of where you are in Pittsburgh, you’re pretty much guaranteed that an Uber or Lyft car is within minutes of your location.
As for CabbyGo, Freedman says their average pickup time in Pittsburgh is around 15 minutes, which he believes will decrease once they hire more drivers. But unlike other ride-hail companies, he thinks they could become a more attractive option to customers in underserved areas.
“Our first ride was from Duquesne to a Downtown hospital at around 3 a.m.,” says Freedman. “The rider couldn’t get a ride from other companies, and they were happy when multiple drivers bid on the ride.”
There are also concerns about safety, especially with reports of passengers allegedly being assaulted, raped or even kidnapped by rideshare drivers in the U.S. and abroad. Uber and Lyft both screen potential drivers, as do zTrip and CabbyGo.
However, Freedman suggests that tighter regulations are necessary, recalling how, last April, a report found that more than 4,000 of Maryland’s ride-hail drivers dismissed since December 2015 were removed from the roads because of their driving or criminal histories, despite previously passing background checks.
“It was kind of an eye opener,” says Freedman, adding that CabbyGo applicants must pass a criminal background check, as well as a driving background check that disqualifies those found to have more than three minor traffic offenses in the last few years. “If someone has two or three tickets, they’re already questionable.”
One particular issue that has bedeviled ride-hail customers is inconsistent tipping policies. While CabbyGo and Lyft allow riders to tip drivers, the option remained widely unavailable on the Uber app. As part of its 180 Days of Change campaign to improve the driver experience, Uber vowed to add a tipping option for all drivers across the U.S. by the end of July 2017.
But efforts like 180 Days of Change come off as an attempt to win back consumers who, over the past year, have soured on Uber as news about allegations of gender discrimination, harassment and retaliation dogged the company. A sexist remark made by one of its male board members last June certainly didn’t help matters.
All this after Uber fought a $11.4 million fine issued by the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission for giving rides without state permission in 2014.
While the company attempted to fix the situation by ousting founder and CEO Travis Kalanick and promising to improve workplace conditions, including firing multiple employees for various infractions, the damage had been done.
The misconduct led Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto to comment on the company he’s championed since 2014, when Uber started putting down stakes in a city that would later serve as a testbed for their autonomous vehicles. In an official statement on Pittsburgh-Uber relations from last April, Peduto stated that “economic disruptors” like Uber have “a moral obligation to provide societal benefits.”
He concluded with, “We look forward to working with all companies in building the new economy, sharing our talent and our work ethic. However, we expect our partners to respect our past, just as we do, as we continue to build our future.”
Those final words rang true when Peduto made it clear that Kalanick’s resignation wouldn’t affect Pittsburgh’s relationship with Uber, complicated as it may be.
Regardless of what drives your choice of ride-hailing app, there’s no doubt that they’re here to stay. But it’s comforting to know you at least have choices, with the possibility of more coming down the pike.