Kansas City’s pink mustache patrol is rolling, ready to issue citations to drivers of the Lyft ride sharing service that launched here Thursday.
The inspectors work for the city’s Regulated Industries Division, which governs taxicab companies and livery drivers, among other businesses.
Their eyes are open for the large, furry, pink mustaches that Lyft drivers fasten to the grilles of their cars. Lyft uses a cellphone app to connect local passengers with local drivers who use their own cars to ferry customers about town.
Such services have become increasingly popular, as demonstrated by Lyft’s announcement this week that it expanded from 36 to 60 markets, including Kansas City. Its rivals — Uber, Sidecar and others — are not known to operate in the Kansas City market.
The taxi industry locally and nationally has challenged the companies’ operations as outside the protections provided by city oversight.
Lyft spokeswoman Katie Dally said in an email Friday that Lyft’s “peer to peer” ride sharing business doesn’t fit into the city’s current regulations. She said the company looks forward to working with the city “to discuss our model and strict safety measures that go beyond what is required for taxis and limos.”
Kansas City’s official word is that Lyft is illegal under city ordinances.
In varying degrees, the nascent app-driven ride share industry has worked with and battled local officials in many of the new territories it has moved into.
A legal scuffle in California ended last fall with the state’s public utilities commission issuing Transportation Network Company permits to some companies, including Lyft. It is a separate business permit from taxi services and applies only to “online-enabled” services that connect passengers to drivers who use their personal vehicles.
Lyft’s website offers the California action as “a sound example for other jurisdictions who are considering regulations for this new peer-to-peer model.”
In St. Louis, Lyft started its service last week but was the target of a court order Monday that temporarily restrains it from operating in the city and county. Lyft and the Metropolitan Taxicab Commission are set to square off in court May 6 over whether the temporary order should become a permanent injunction.
The first volley in Kansas City came Thursday evening as a “Lyft Launcher” event treated the company’s new drivers to Fiorella’s Jack Stack barbecue.
Two city officials hid in ambush.
“I did have two of my staff members in the audience just to ascertain what was going on,” said Gerald Countz, assistant manager of the Regulated Industries Division.
Countz said a staff supervisor and investigator listened as the Lyft official told drivers what to expect, including measures to take if a passenger vomited in their car or brought an animal.
“After they gathered as much information as they needed to gather, they informed all present that what they were doing was illegal and that they needed to be permitted through the city,” Countz said.
Dally, in her email, said the meeting was private and the city officials didn’t disclose their identities. They also “attempted to dissuade local drivers” and caused “a momentary disruption.”
Countz said Friday afternoon that the city has nine investigators and they have been patrolling, but they were not seeing any illegal behavior attributable to Lyft.
“We won’t just pull over a pink mustache and say you’re going to get a ticket,” he said. “A violation has to be committed.”
Countz said a vehicle carrying a paying passenger needs to be licensed to offer a livery service and the driver needs to have a permit to act as livery driver. That’s different from a taxi driver.
Taxi services, he said, operate with a meter. A livery driver settles the amount of the fare before taking on the passenger.
Operating a livery service in Kansas City requires payment of a $500 application fee by a company, and drivers each need to pay $50 for a permit. Each vehicle is subject to an inspection, triggering a fee of $22.
Countz said the fees cover verification of the company’s operations, background checks on drivers and inspections of the vehicles.
A citation could lead to a fine of $25 to $500.
In St. Louis, Lyft has stood out from two others that have worked with the taxicab commission governing the city and county, said Chuck Billings, general counsel for the commission.
Carmel Car & Limousine Dispatching Service has worked with the commission and is operating, its application approved in February. Uber also has applied, Billings said. Uber is seeking some changes to the code that Billings said would apply to all covered companies if approved.
Lyft has not worked with the commission, Billing said, and four of its drivers have been cited there. The commission has been monitoring Lyft’s app since the court order.
“The service is still there, but it says no cars are available,” he said. “They’ve obviously stopped servicing.”
Dally, without commenting on current services, said the court order “saddened” Lyft, which is pursuing legal options.