By Glenn Garvin
It's probably not as lucrative a field as it used to be back in the day when it meant robbing stagecoaches, but being a transportation outlaw is still fun.
I spent Wednesday riding around with Miami-Dade County's illegal new car services. I didn't get shot at or arrested, and I came away with the feeling that this new way of moving around South Florida's clogged streets is going to be a lot harder to wipe out than county officials think.
You might call Lyft, which started carrying passengers here two weeks ago, and UberX, which opened up shop in Miami at noon Wednesday, freelance taxi services, with drivers who use their own cars and utilize the Internet to hook up with passengers.
You would certainly call them illegal. County officials, who say they're operating without the proper business licenses and driver registrations, are fining drivers they catch $2,000 a pop. The companies say the fines are just one more start-up cost, and they're confident they'll eventually win legal status. (Both companies operate legally in many other U.S. cities.)
Legal or not, both UberX and Lyft seemed to be operating pretty much as promised Wednesday. The smart-phone apps used to summon them worked efficiently, the cars arrived more or less at the promised time -- at least as promptly as officially sanctioned taxi cabs do -- and the drivers were courteous and friendly.
"The company put a lot of emphasis on that in the training, on being nice to the customers," said Faustino, 35, a guard for a cash-courier company who's picking up extra money driving for Lyft using his Honda Civic. (Like all the car-service drivers, he asked for his last name not to be used or for his picture to be taken, to avoid trouble with the county.) "They said, over and over, that customers aren't going to come back unless you treat them nicely."
Though there are differences in the details, Lyft and UberX operate on essentially the same model. You load the company's app into your smart phone, then click on it when you need a ride somewhere.
The app replies with a map showing the closest driver and the time it will take him to reach you. If you like what you see, you click your acceptance. Your phone will show a photo of the driver and a description of his car. (If you sign into the app through Facebook, the driver will also see whatever photo you have in your profile.)
While waiting, you can check the app and see exactly where your taxi is -- which is how I knew that the car I called from UberX to pick me up at the Venetian condo at 15th and Biscayne had overshot his turn and would be a few minutes late.
Payment is done via a credit card, scanned or entered into your phone -- the driver neither sets the fare nor touches any cash. The car services claim their rates are cheaper that those of taxis, but that wasn't apparent from the rides I took. The fares they charged between my Coral Gables home and the old Miami Herald building off Biscayne Boulevard (between $22 and $24) were about the same as cabbies charge.
And in a head-to-head comparison Wednesday afternoon, a cabbie charged me just under $10 to take me from my house to the Red Bird Shopping Center, while a Lyft car cost $14 for the return trip a few minutes later.
But taxis and car services couldn't be more different when it comes to the end of the trip. A taxi just speeds on to its next fare, but with a car service, both customer and driver can send the company evaluations of one another.
That allows the companies to weed out bad drivers -- and the drivers to weed out customers who are abusive, drunk or (the bane of taxis and car services alike) throw up in the car.
"Basically, if I give you less than three stars, it means I don't want to see you again," said Simon, another Lyft driver, who drove a 2014 Chevy Cruze. "If I see a request from a customer I've given a low rating to in the past, I'm not going to agree to pick him up the next time."
Not that he's really had any bad customers in the two weeks he's been driving for Lyft. "I used to hate to drive, but now I really like it," Simon said. "Before, I just drove to my job, and at the end of the ride there was nothing but pain. Now I get to meet people and exchange ideas with them. Most of them are tourists, of course, and I'm not going to see them again. But I've already had some repeat customers who are now my friends."
He was making the point that the new car services operate not only on different business models but different cultural ones, too. The car-service drivers are not professional cabbies but freelancers supplementing their income from other jobs -- I got rides Wednesday from security guards, interior designers and even organizers of financial workshops. All of them said their companies had performed background checks on them that took a week to 10 days, as well as verifying that they had valid driver licenses, car registrations and insurance, and that their vehicles were no more than 10 years old.
They drive as much or as little as they like; if they're bored or tired or feel like they've made enough money for the day, they just switch off their company cellphones and stop taking calls. And whether it's just company training or genuine curiosity, they were all anxious to strike up conversations.
We talked about everything from foreign-policy gaffes (the Italian invasion of Ethiopia during World War II, which went so badly for the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini that he had to call on Adolf Hitler for help in putting down an army that was fighting tanks with spears) to sporting atrocities (Juan Marichal, the major league pitcher who once displayed his pique with an opposition player by cracking a bat over his head).
"This is why I like this job," said Daniel, 29, an UberX driver who uses his Acura MDX and who shared some tips with me on how to pacify drunk hockey fans. (One of his other jobs is working as a security guard at concerts and sporting events.) "I would never drive a taxi. It would be too weird. But this is like giving a ride to a friend."
That all sounds sweetly utopian, say regular cab drivers. But they would prefer to talk dollar and cents, which they believe the car services are swindling them out of.
"With us, the government just puts more regulation, but now these other companies come in and they don't have to have any of the things we do," sighed Maria Nieto, 42, who drives 12 hours a day, six days a week for Yellow Cab. "It's gonna hurt us big time. But what can we do?"
Maria -- who, by the way, was certainly as personable as any of the car-service drivers -- seemed to weave back and forth as she thought through the nuances of the new competition she faces.
"I'm not really angry; they're just trying to make a living, same as me," she mused. "When we're busy, I guess there's room for everybody. But when it's slow, there's not ... . I guess we're just hoping that they fade away."
(c)2014 The Miami Herald