PILSEN — Drivers and riders of Lyft, a ride-sharing service featuring pink-mustachioed cars driving around Chicago, say the city should think twice before regulating their fledgling industry.
That comes after Mayor Rahm Emanuel proposed an ordinance at last week's City Council meeting that would put in place certain restrictions and require a licensing fee for so-called "transportation network providers" such as Lyft, UberX and Sidecar.
The ride-share services, which match riders with drivers through an online app, have drawn the ire of the taxi cab industry since they launched in the city in 2013. Last week, Chicago's taxi cab companies sued the city, claiming services like Lyft undercut their business while failing to meet city laws.
But Lyft drivers say they are not taxis and also say the city should not rush to regulation.
On Thursday evening, Lyft held a "community meeting" for drivers and riders in Pilsen that had the feel of a pep rally. Music, balloons and, of course, pink mustaches filled the Lacuna Artist Studios. Servers walked around distributing fancy finger foods for the 100 or so people who attended.
After some riders and drivers shared their experiences with the service, Lyft co-founder John Zimmer told the crowd: "We're supportive of things that focus on safety, and things that don't focus on protecting an existing industry."
However, he added, "We think there should be a variety of options" for transportation.
Zimmer did not address many of the specifics of the ordinance, like how a proposed annual licensing fee of $25,000 per company and $25 per driver would affect Lyft's customers.
He also did not touch on how the service's pricing model, which currently charges based on time and distance, could change. The mayor's ordinance, which was also put forward by Ald. Emma Mitts (37th), requires ride-sharing drivers to be paid by time or distance or a prearranged flat fare.
But Zimmer did address taxi drivers' complaints that ride-share services, which have fares generally cheaper than an average cab, are unfair to cab companies. Zimmer argued services like Lyft offer more incentive for riders to ditch their cars altogether, causing increased demand for taxis, too.
"I don't think this is a zero-sum game. I think that there is a need for all of these services," Zimmer said. "Hopefully, we can grow the pie for everyone."
The 29-year-old founder also said his service would already meet safety standards, like insurance coverage and background checks for drivers, proposed in the ordinance. Lyft driver Andrew Mondt, 46, said the service also self-regulates: customers and drivers rate each other after trips.
"Every time I end a ride, that rider rates me," Mondt said. "And keeping my rating up is really important to me, so a traditional cabbie, they're not getting feedback at all. I'm constantly kept on my game."
Drivers say other provisions, like prohibiting advertisements on or inside of ride-share cars, or outlawing drivers from picking up or dropping off customers at O'Hare Airport, are unnecessarily restrictive.
Mia Barnett, 36, who has been a Lyft driver since June, said the restrictions will stifle the industry.
"If the ordinance passes as it is, it really limits the growth of companies like Lyft," Barnett said. "It prevents growth and new companies from coming to the city."
Taxicab companies and some aldermen argue drivers for Lyft or Uber are basically taxi drivers who are currently flouting the law. But Lyft drivers are quick to say they are not cabs.
"That's not what we are," said driver Zoey Gottstein. "We're your friend with a car."
Gottstein, 28, said another difference is that her customers cannot hail a Lyft car. She also said the company's mission of connecting regular drivers with open seats to riders who need them is different than that of a cab company.
"It's a very different concept, and I don't think it's fair to try and associate us with them," Gottstein said.
When Emanuel introduced the proposed legislation, he said he considered it compromise between the conventional taxis and ride-sharing services. But Zimmer and other organizers encouraged drivers and riders to contact their aldermen in opposition to the ordinance.
After the meeting, Zimmer said he was "confident" the ride-sharing community will get through to City Hall about their concerns.
"The voice of the people who live here is really important," he said. "I know it's important to politicians everywhere, so we're confident that we're going to be able to make something happen that works for this community."
And despite the City Council's track record of giving the mayor what he wants, driver Josh Gomez said he is not worried about the regulations.
"I don't know how you put the genie back in the bottle," he said of ride-sharing services like Lyft. "We do it better."
Uber also held a private party for its top users on Thursday evening in which they also discussed opposing specific parts of the ordinance, according to an attendee of the meeting.
The Tribune reported Friday that Uber did not check some of the criminal records of its drivers. The paper discovered one of the Uber drivers had a felony conviction for residential burglary.
Uber officials told the Tribune that it was expanding its policy on background checks to include federal and county-level reviews for new and existing drivers.