TAMPA — On a recent Tuesday evening, I set out on a mission.
Travel from the University of South Florida to Ybor City and back by the end of the night — without using my car.
Sure, I could have called a cab or taken public transportation. But this was an opportunity to test two ride-sharing services new to Tampa Bay, Lyft and UberX.
Launched here in the last two weeks, Lyft and UberX use smartphone apps to connect passengers with drivers who use their own vehicles. The services, both from San Francisco tech startups, have come under fire for their refusal to comply with the Hillsborough County Public Transportation Commission, which regulates taxis.
Though drivers are at risk of citation, and even arrest, for operating without proper certification, riders face no penalty.
Outside the USF library, I opened the Lyft app.
A dot on the map showed my location and that the nearest driver was seven minutes away. With a press of the "Request Lyft" button, my service had started.
My driver, the app showed, was Ryan, who called moments later to let me know he was on his way. I watched a graphic of a car make progress on the map.
Arriving on time, he called again to let me know his car didn't have Lyft's signature pink moustache attached to the front. He later told me he won't get one until he completes 30 rides. I was his first.
Ryan Foley is a 25-year-old Tampa resident who helps run a restaurant and janitorial supply company with his family.
He became a Lyft driver to earn extra cash and have fun.
"Driving is my happy place," he said.
Foley gave me a fist bump — the standard Lyft greeting — then offered water or a snack before inviting me to sit in the front seat of his Chevrolet Impala.
From there, the service felt much like a regular taxi cab ride.
The main difference: Foley felt like an instant friend. He easily kept the conversation flowing and even pointed out interesting landmarks along the way.
When we arrived in Ybor City, a glance at the Lyft app informed me the ride cost $25 with the choice to add or subtract based on service. Passengers have up to 24 hours to change the amount and submit payment.
As Foley drove away, I added a $4 tip and rated the service with five stars. The cost was automatically charged to a credit card I put on file after downloading the Lyft app.
To hitch a ride back to USF, I opened the UberX app.
The service is very similar to Lyft except UberX offers an estimated fare before requesting a car.
In about 10 minutes, driver Xavier Taveras pulled up in a black 2012 Toyota Camry. His front passenger seat was moved close to the dashboard so I took that as a hint to get in the back seat.
Taveras, 26, of Tampa, was friendly but more reserved. He is driving for UberX full-time, he said. In his first four days on the job, he had already given more than 40 rides.
"The airport is the most popular place to go," he said. "But people are also just going to work or to the mall."
Taveras took a more direct route between Ybor City and USF, resulting in a total of $19. The app didn't give me an option to add a tip, perhaps because rides up to $50 are free through April 24.
Given the option of rating my service, I gave Taveras five stars.
As for fares, the Lyft ride didn't seem to be that different from a typical taxi. A regular taxi would have cost about $30 with a 15 percent tip, according to taxifarefinder.com.
UberX and Lyft both have $5 minimum fares and $5 cancellation fees. During nonpeak hours, UberX charges $2 per ride plus a combination of 15 cents per minute and $1.50 per mile. Lyft has a $1.75 base charge plus a combination of 21 cents per minute and $1.92 per mile.
But unlike regular taxis, Lyft and UberX can implement higher prices or mandatory tips during peak hours to encourage more drivers to get on the road. Passengers are always warned beforehand.
While I arrived back to my car at USF safely, the Public Transportation Commission said using these services poses some risks.
A driver's insurance may not cover commercial uses of their car — meaning an accident could leave a passenger with bills and a driver liable, the PTC said.
Both UberX and Lyft said they carry extra coverage for passengers just for that reason.
The services are available in portions of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.
Shelley Rossetter can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3401.