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Columbus looks to regulate evolving transportation option

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The city of Columbus is trying to regulate an emerging ride-sharing program that taxi drivers fear will put a serious dent in their business.

City Council is considering a number of measures that would bring app-based businesses such as Lyft and Uber, otherwise known as peer-to-peer services, into line with other vehicle-for-hire companies.

Those groups use a Web-based subscription service to arrange pickup for passengers.

The contracted drivers use everyday vehicles that are unmarked, save for a company logo or other distinguishing icon.

John Mazza, who represents the Independent Taxi Cab Association of Columbus, said he has many concerns over the evolving transportation service.

Taxis, he said, are subject to quotas, while peer-to-peer companies are not. He said the competitors' rates are arbitrarily set, meaning they can grow their businesses by undercutting cab prices.

More livery services put cabbies, most of whom own and operate their own vehicles, at a competitive disadvantage, Mazza said.

"These guys are having a tough time making a living as it is," Mazza said.

But peer-to-peer industry officials say they simply are meeting a demand from a tech-savvy public.

Jim Black, an executive with San Francisco-based Lyft, said the drivers present an informal setting where customers are encouraged to choose their own radio stations and make conversation with the drivers.

"It's like driving with a friend," he said.

He said there's enough business to go around in a town where busy professionals and younger folks are trying to get around inexpensively and easily without having to vie for parking spaces.

"It's pulling from the empty car seats," Black said. "It's pulling from the single-passenger cars more than it's pulling from the cabs."

Matt Sharples, a chiropractor and part-time driver for Lyft, said he's already given 120 rides in the first two weeks the company entered the market.

He said competition will only strengthen the system.

"That's what our country's built on, competition and the ability to innovate," he said.

Amanda Ford, spokeswoman for the Columbus Department of Public Safety, said the peer-to-peer companies are operating legally as long as they are not charging consumers a fare because technically they are not operating as a vehicle for hire.

If they start charging fares before legislation is in place, they are in violation of the code, Ford said.

City Council is merely trying to protect consumers, said John Ivanic, council's spokesman.

"The fact is they're operating, they're popular and we need to craft some legislation that ensures the drivers are properly licensed and operating in a safe manner," he said of the peer-to-peer companies.

Under the proposed rules, peer-to-peer vehicles would be required to carry $1 million in commercial liability insurance, where taxis now carry $500,000.

And, unlike cabs, they could not be hailed from the street.

Drivers would have to be at least 21 years old, have no more than three points on their driver's licenses in a three-month period and undergo routine vehicle inspections.

Also, according to the recommendations, they could only accept payment through credit cards, not cash.

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