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  1. Transportation

10 things to understand about Lyft and Uber

Published Oct. 18, 2014

Ride-share companies Uber and Lyft have generated a lot of discussion since they launched here in April. The services, which allow smartphone users to summon nearby drivers, have faced scrutiny nationwide for not complying with regulatory systems aimed at taxis and limousines.

While local regulators and state officials determine how and if the companies will operate in Florida, here's what you need to know about the latest transportation option to hit the Tampa Bay area.

1. What exactly are Lyft and Uber?

Lyft and Uber are two of the leading ride-share companies in the United States. Technically, ride-shares are transportation network companies, a more formal name created by the California Public Utilities Commission in 2013 to describe companies that use an online platform to connect passengers with drivers who use their own cars.

2. How does this ride-share thing work?

Riders download a free smartphone app for either company that shows them where nearby drivers are and also takes payment. A rider taps a button to request a ride and then can watch via GPS as the car approaches. The rider is shown a picture of the driver and his or her car and can also see the rating other riders have given that driver. When in the car, the ride operates much like a taxi, except at the end, the passenger gets out without handing over cash. Instead, they are charged through the app and emailed a receipt. They then rate the driver and can leave a comment.

3. Are Lyft and Uber less expensive than cabs?

Both companies say their rates are up to 40 percent cheaper than cabs, depending on the city. Prices vary by location, but in Tampa, both companies charge the same rate. Each ride has a base charge of $1.25 plus a $1 trust and safety fee. The rate is calculated at $1.20 a mile and 13 cents a minute. According to documentation from Hillsborough County, "standard taxicabs shall charge no more than" $2 for the first one-fifth of a mile, 45 cents for each additional one-fifth of a mile and 30 cents for each minute of waiting time.

4. Why are Lyft and Uber drivers being ticketed in Hillsborough?

The Public Transportation Commission, which regulates for-hire vehicles such as taxis and limousines, has issued about 50 tickets to Lyft and Uber drivers for operating without proper insurance and licensing. Because the drivers are getting paid to drive passengers, the PTC says they are providing a for-hire service and are subject to the county's laws. Lyft and Uber officials say they offer a separate service that does not fall under the jurisdiction of the PTC. They pay the fines for the drivers and continue to operate.

5. Is it illegal to ride with Lyft or Uber?

No, passengers cannot get tickets. While the drivers and companies can be cited, PTC executive director Kyle Cockream said investigators do not have the authority to institute any kind of penalty against the passenger.

6. If I'm a Lyft or Uber passenger and I'm in a car accident, am I covered by their insurance?

This is a major sticking point, and the answer is unclear. Lyft and Uber say their million-dollar policies cover passengers in accidents. The PTC says the insurance, which is a surplus line, is not valid in Florida. Recently the Florida Office of Insurance Regulation said Uber's policy provides legally binding coverage that meets state requirements. But they deferred to the Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles on several key points, including whether a surplus policy is acceptable. Highway Safety declined to comment on these concerns until there is a determination, likely from the state Legislature, as to whether Uber is operating as a for-hire vehicle.

7. Are the vehicles I'm riding in inspected?

Yes, but to varying degrees depending on the company and the city. Lyft requires all new drivers to meet with a Lyft mentor in their city. The mentor does a 19-point inspection that is mostly cosmetic, but also includes brakes, headlights and tires. In some cities, Lyft and Uber are requiring drivers to visit a third-party vendor, such as Pep Boys, to undergo a mechanical check.

8. Do the drivers go through background checks?

Yes, but local regulators say those background checks are not as stringent as they would like. Both Lyft and Uber use outside companies that screen drivers for violent crimes, sexual assaults, reckless driving, DUIs and other offenses. But because they do not do a Level II background check, which includes fingerprinting and the FBI database, the PTC says it does not meet its standards.

9. Is there a difference between the two companies?

On the surface, no. Both developed around the same time and connect riders and drivers through a smartphone app. Each tracks the ride with GPS and accepts payment in the app via credit card. Uber prides itself on offering a range of services, such as UberBlack (more like a limo), Uber XL (for groups of six people) and UberFresh, (a food delivery service). Lyft says its origin, based on ride-sharing in Zimbabwe, distinguishes it. The drivers are encouraged to be outgoing, invite passengers to sit in the front seat and greet them with a fist bump.

10. If I have strong opinions about Lyft and Uber, who should I contact?

The Public Transportation Commission is the local agency. State legislators, such as state Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg), tried to pass legislation regarding ride-sharing last session and will likely try again next spring.

Answers are aggregated from interviews with Public Transportation Commission executive director Kyle Cockream, PTC chairman Victor Crist, Lyft spokeswomen Chelsea Wilson and Paige Thelen and Uber spokesman Taylor Bennett. Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (813) 661-2443. Follow @cljohnst.

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