No Ridesharing in this Hitchhiker’s Galaxy

By Josh Thompson

I grew up just outside one of those towns that is twenty-five minutes away from everything. The perfect blend of bucolic solitude, suburban monotony, and the urban monolithic—we were at the center of everything and the summit of nowhere. We could go everywhere but had trouble getting anywhere. Taxis were a rarity—they were relegated to the hum drum of professional life and mid-day city dwellers. I spent many days with friends thinking “if only we had Uber.”  

Uber and Lyft are the predominant ride sharing companies in North America today. Uber, founded in 2008 by two businessmen and computer programmers named Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp, has since grown to an estimated value of $18.2 billion and branched out to reach 579 cities worldwide. Lyft, founded in 2012 in San Francisco, operates in over 65 counties in the United States and is currently valued at approximately $2.5 billion dollars. Yet, their growth did not extend into upstate New York. While the two companies are allowed to operate in New York City under Taxi and Limousine regulations, they have been prohibited in the rest of the state for myriad reasons. Legislators have long claimed that “safety,” was the main reason for stymying the expansion of ride sharing to the rest of the State. Concerns over fingerprint requirements for drivers, insurance, and inclusion of persons with disabilities made legislators reluctant to embrace the enterprise. Pressure from private lobbyists also pushed those holding office to embrace the existing transportation norms across the state.

Yet, on March 16, 2017, mayors from Buffalo, Syracuse, Rochester, Ithaca, Albany, Binghamton, Utica, Rome, and Kingston submitted a proposal to New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo urging him and other state legislators to allow ridesharing in upstate New York. The effort was not the result of one brief and sweeping stroke of a pen. It had been an ongoing dispute between legislators, companies, and existing transportation unions. To add to the ambiguity, even people like John Tomassi of the upstate Transportation Association cite the economic uncertainty of the issue. While some estimates say that ridesharing would bring about a $40 million-dollar boom to cities like Buffalo, the effects on the rest of the transportation industry, ranging from taxis to busses to trains, could be equally extreme.

Nevertheless, the efforts of city officials, citizens, and the free market convinced the New York State legislature to embrace the changes that Uber and Lyft will inevitably bring to the transportation industry in upstate New York. On April 7, Governor Andrew Cuomo approved the 2018 state budget, which includes authorization for ridesharing companies, like Uber and Lyft, to go state-wide. The companies are hoping to debut in about ninety days—mid-summer. I’ll be home, and this time I won’t be needing a ride anywhere.