It's been one year since a change in state law allowed ride-hailing companies to begin operating in the Buffalo area and across all of Upstate New York. But has the service delivered the benefits that were promised?
Getting Albany to make ride-hailing, or ridesharing, legal was a lengthy process that included a lot pushing from local residents, businesses, and elected officials. Before the roll out, bar owners and other advocates claimed the service would keep people from drinking and driving.
"We haven't seen an impact in terms of arrests yet." But John Sullivan, Director of Erie County's STOP DWI Office says, now that ridesharing's been available the past 12 months they'll begin analyzing the data.
"What we'd like to know, is it having an effect on the characteristics of people who are drinking and driving? So people that are technologically adept, perhaps a younger demographic, might choose a ride share more frequently than somebody who's an older demographic. So we would expect our average age of a DWI offender, in Erie County, to rise. But it's a complicated process, assigning causation," Sullivan said.
Bruce Wiseley, a retired Army nurse, from Batavia signed up before the law took effect and has been driving for Uber since day one. To avoid the late night drunk crowd, Wiseley says, he works days and he loves it.
"It's the perfect job for a retired person. I've had 36 different countries represented in my car in a year. Which is really kind of fun. I trade money with them all the time, you know, dollar for dollar or whatever their denomination is. Just talking to people and enjoying myself." And Wiseley says, he drives about a thousand miles a week and the money he makes is nice because it pays for the extras.
But Peter Herr, of Lancaster, gave up driving for Uber. Herr says, he did have fun working part-time for the company last summer. But after keeping good track of how many miles he drove, and how many hours spent in the car, Herr says,
"The problem was at the end of the summer I was probably only making ten, twelve, 13 bucks an hour and that was before I started to pay for the gas. So that was why I decided to finally get out of it is because I just wasn't making a lot of money," Herr said.
So far there hasn't been many complaints from customers about ride-sharing in the City of Buffalo according to Common Council Member Joseph Golombek. But as Chair of the city's Taxi Cab Committee he says plans are in the works to overhaul the city's taxi ordinances.
"Some of the issues are that the Buffalo taxi cabs have to be inspected by the Buffalo Police Department. They have to have a license from the city of Buffalo. Ride sharing does not." So Golombek says he'd like to level the playing field. "Instead of tying up Traffic Police Officers to do inspections we would have them out on the streets. And personally I would rather have them out on the streets. If they're not inspecting everybody's cars then we ought to hold, I believe the taxi industry to the same standard as ride share," Golombek said.
But given advances in technology - is there much of a future in driving a taxi or for a ridesharing company? Lyft's Upstate New York General Manager Ann Ferracane says Lyft drivers shouldn't be concerned about being replaced by autonomous or self-driving cars. Ferracane says as the technology improves there's always going to be a place for the driver to be a part of the Lyft experience.
"We're really excited about continuing to bridge that gap between technology and humanity. And that's really been a big goal of the company since I started and I've been with them for almost four years. So it's a really, I think, exciting opportunity to think about what it could be like to just continue to integrate people into the experience and weave new technologies into it as well," Ferracane said.
Brian Hughes, Uber's General Manager for New York says, "the shift towards autonomous vehicles on the Uber platform is going to be gradual." And says "the company believes there's going to be a place for both autonomous and human driven vehicles for some time."
"We're really in the early days of autonomous technology in which we're going to do a few things. I think one, ensure that we can get to a proper level of safety before any type of roll out at scale. Two, we're going to ensure that people have the options they want. Some people are just never going to want to get into an autonomous vehicle," Hughes said.
Regardless of what the future may hold, Visit Buffalo Niagara President and CEO Patrick Kaler says, so far ridesharing has been a very positive new-visitor amenity.
"And because we've had several large events in the destination since last year we haven't taken any hits on social media for any potential riders not having access to ride share." Kaler says he thinks the lack of negative publicity may be one of the biggest takeaways the arrival of ridesharing. It's a mode of transportation he says people expect coming to a city the size of Buffalo.