When the popularity of Lyft, UberX and Sidecar’s smartphone apps took off in Seattle last year, the city’s taxi and for-hire industry’s desire to release popular phone apps of their own immediately transformed into a desperate survival mission.
That involved running a daunting game of technological catch-up.
Among the many competitive edges so-called rideshare companies had — including zero government regulation or oversight — were San Francisco-based operations funded by millions of dollars in venture capital. Developers streamlined informative and user-friendly apps that quickly caught the interest of Seattle’s smartphone-savvy.
In the year since, most taxi and for-hire companies have started working with or have released newly developed apps. Some are sleek third-party apps that come with their own additional booking fees, and others still need a lot of upgrading.
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Since September, Eastside for Hire drivers have been working with Flywheel, an app that includes the same basic functionality of those used by Lyft, UberX and Sidecar.
Flywheel doesn’t have the same brand recognition as Uber and Lyft in Seattle yet but has been popular with almost all San Francisco’s taxi companies since 2012. Flywheel works only with licensed taxi and for-hire drivers.
Craig Leisy, manager of the city of Seattle’s consumer-affairs unit, at first told Eastside for Hire it could be cited for working with Flywheel, because the app included a $1 booking fee and default 20 percent tip that could be altered to zero — something that technically violated the legal concept of a flat-rate for-hire car.
But Eastside for Hire decided to keep using the app anyway.
“At that point we said, let’s see what he does,” said Samatar Guled, manager of Eastside for Hire. “Because if he does something to us, he basically has to do the same thing to Uber and Lyft — and we knew he wasn’t going to do that.”
Since September, Yellow Cab and Orange Cab have also had a basic placeholder app that allows customers to book without calling a dispatcher and to track where their ride is.
The more than 9,000 people who have downloaded the app can’t pay through the system yet, but the Puget Sound Dispatch general manager, Tommy Key, says that will be included in an upgraded version that should be released before cruise-ship season starts in April.
“It’ll have a brand new dispatching system that finally gets all cabs off radio signals,” said Key.
“We think our app system is going to be better than Uber’s — we’re trying to make sure we’re not just doing something already out there on the market,” he said.
Key said there would also be options for booking online and calling the old-fashioned way.
Not every taxi and for-hire company waited until after Lyft, UberX and Sidecar came to Seattle to attempt using a booking app.
A company called Olympic for Hire had introduced its app concept to the city but in 2012 was told to not use it because it wasn’t properly calibrated with taximeters and would require rewriting of city code, said Abdul Yusuf, an advocate for the for-hire industry and CEO of CNG for Hire.
“They would have been the Uber of the town,” Yusuf said. “Then, almost exactly a year later, UberX comes here, and the city did nothing to them.”
Yusuf said it’s harder for full-time taxi and for-hire drivers — many of them low-income immigrants working long hours to get a steady foothold in a shaky economy — to take the legal risks that rideshare drivers have taken over the last year because their lives and that of their families often depend on their income.
Guled hopes that the proliferation of app use among taxi and for-hire drivers shows there really isn’t a big difference between what they do and what Lyft, UberX and Sidecar do.
“If you take away the pink mustache and the app, we’re doing the same thing as Lyft,” he said.
“We’re not afraid of competition; we just don’t want them to be treated differently than us.”
A City Council committee that has been studying taxi and rideshare issues for almost a year now has proposed regulations that Lyft, Sidecar and UberX representatives say will kill their operations in Seattle completely.
A proposed pilot program would limit Lyft, UberX and Sidecar — now legally referred to as Transportation Network Companies (TNCs) — to contract with drivers who either have a for-hire license or one of 300 new TNC permits the city would create and dole out by lottery.
The three-person committee including Councilmembers Sally Clark, Bruce Harrell and Mike O’Brien was scheduled to vote on the TNC-permit cap Friday morning but has decided to delay the vote until later this month.
Alexa Vaughn: 206-464-2515 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @AlexaVaughn.