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Lyft, the pay-to-hitchhike app, baits regulators by launching in New York City

Lyft, the pay-to-hitchhike app, baits regulators by launching in New York City

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Lyft, the app that enables passengers to grab rides with strangers, just announced it will begin serving customers this week in the New York City outer boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens.

"The people of New York deserve more transportation options," Lyft wrote in a blog post. "Lyft provides greater access to a safe, affordable personal transit alternative that is built for New Yorkers, by New Yorkers."

Lyft, which is available in more than 60 US cities, is cheaper than a taxi and its drivers undergo more stringent background checks than cabbies, the company says.

But that doesn't make it legal.

The city busted two drivers with Lyft competitor SideCar last year

The taxi industry in New York City is heavily regulated by the Taxi and Limousine Commission (TLC), which sets rules for payment methods, safety regulations, and where and how passengers may be picked up.

Lyft says it has "voluntarily engaged" with the TLC, but the TLC doesn't make it sound quite so friendly. "They agreed to one meeting, that we had this afternoon," an agency representative said in an email.

The TLC offered to work with Lyft to comply with public safety laws, but the startup didn't want to wait.

"Every rider deserves the safety and consumer protections our rules provide, and we have a long track record of working successfully with innovative companies to help them start out the right way," TLC chair Meera Joshi said in a statement sent to The Verge.

"We’re still hopeful that Lyft will accept our offer to help them do the right thing for New York City passengers as they should, but New Yorkers can rest assured that the TLC will do its job and take the actions necessary to protect them."

Instead, it looks like Lyft has decided to go after the hearts of New Yorkers first and approval of the government second. The company's blog post points to a petition asking Mayor Bill de Blasio that asks the city to allow ride-sharing apps and "remove barriers to transportation innovation."

"They agreed to one meeting."

The decision to launch in Brooklyn and Queens, which are traditionally underserved by transportation options, and give out two weeks of free rides, also look like savvy public-relations moves.

That "launch first, ask questions later" strategy ultimately worked for Uber, which was locked out of New York City for a year but eventually allowed to return. Lyft is in a more complicated situation, however: it's merely connecting people with cars to people who need a lift, not working with professional drivers.

"Lyft's model is not covered by any existing city or state law," a Lyft representative said in an email. "The TLC has the broad authority to partner with experimental programs like they did recently with e-hail apps."

It's unclear how likely a TLC–Lyft partnership will be, considering Meeri's statement sounds like a veiled threat. The city could issue Lyft a cease and desist letter, or start arresting its drivers. (Last year, the TLC busted two drivers who were using SideCar, which is almost identical to Lyft.)

Lyft will be available in for pickups Brooklyn and Queens starting Friday night. The city's reaction in the next few days will determine how messy a battle this will be.