Will Uber, Lyft services come to Upstate NY?

Photo courtesy of Flickr.

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published by our partner publication, The Ithaca Voice.

ITHACA, N.Y. — Have you ever wondered why Uber and Lyft still haven’t made an appearance in Ithaca? Well, it may not be a far off possibility for supporters of the popular ride-sharing systems, which uses a cell phone app to hail a cab.

Upstate New York is currently unable to implement ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft primarily due to New York State insurance laws. New York City was granted an exception to these laws because of their taxi service laws.

Julie Holcomb, Ithaca’s City Clerk, said that while the issue seems relatively straightforward, that there are many nuances to the laws which make the matter much more complicated than just making a simple change to city ordinances.

“This is a state-wide issue,” Holcomb said. “It is not specific to Upstate New York and Tompkins County, cities and states all over the country have been struggling with different issues surrounding Transportation Network Companies because their business models are very different from traditional transportation companies and that adds a layer of complication.”

Related: Ithaca officials, taxi companies prepare for regulatory battle with Uber

Governor Andrew Cuomo announced on Jan. 9, in his 2017 State of the State address, that enabling access to ridesharing in Upstate New York was one of his priorities for the year. He said his hope is that “this action will spur economic development across upstate and further position our upstate cities as cities of the 21st century.”

In an advance to work around the current limitations, Cuomo proposed a statewide framework which would be regulated by the Department of Motor Vehicles. Some of the points he brought up included; DMV licensing of rideshare companies, thorough vetting of potential drivers, ensuring that riders receive specific information about their car, and requiring drivers to maintain insurance coverages which are double the current auto insurance limit.

Fernando de Aragon, director of Ithaca-Tompkins County Transportation Council, said it would be hard to predict the success of ride-sharing services if they were to be implemented in Tompkins County.

“It works best with a lot of drivers and a lot of riders, so it translates better to bigger cities,” he said. “I’m not sure how well it would operate in Ithaca – I think it will be something people will get really excited about, but no one will be driving if they’re unable to make any money.”

Michael Lane, Tompkins County Legislator and Chair of the county’s transportation committee, said that NYS legislature has been considering Gov. Cuomo’s proposal, but has not been taken up for discussion in detail.

“Although there has been some general talk about the matter locally, I am not aware that it has been taken up for comment by any of our committees,” he said.

Holcomb said that up until recently, the overall demand for ride-sharing apps and services has been low. However, as a college town overrun by students for the majority of the year, Ithaca could stand to benefit from these kinds of services while simultaneously making lives easier for students

“We weren’t sure that our market was big enough to garner the interest of transportation network companies but I do believe that being a college town is an attraction,” Holcomb said. “I believe the majority of students who come to Ithaca do not bring vehicles and have to find alternative means of transportation. The use of mobile apps and electronic fund transfers make traveling for students very convenient and easy.”

Additionally, Holcomb said employment is often limited to students with means of transportation. Ride-sharing, she said, could be a way to make the work schedule more flexible for a student without the luxury of having a car or insurance.

“The main conversation surrounding this issue is focused on public safety – insurance requirements, criminal background investigations and medical testing for drivers, et cetera,” Holcomb said. “Right now, the city of Ithaca regulates all of those things for taxicab companies and drivers. Taxicab companies are concerned about creating a level playing field so they can compete with Transportation Network Companies in an equitable manner despite the different business models.”

One of a few things will have to happen before Uber or Lyft could operate in Ithaca. If Gov. Cuomo’s proposal for regulation and oversight is approved statewide, Holcomb said no local action would be needed. However, if the regulation is left up to local municipalities, the city of Ithaca would be in charge of changing its own legislation.