ALBANY — Juxtaposed with The Olde English Pub and Pantry as a backdrop, politicos and business folk alike were still beaming over the launch of ridesharing services at a press conference organized by The Capital Region Ridesharing Coalition on Thursday, June 29.
Just several hours earlier, Uber and Lyft officially launched operations at one minute after midnight.
One by one, Uber drivers dropped off each of the speakers in a loosely organized procession to demonstrate the ease of travel. One such car carried a New York state vanity plate spelling out “knuckleheads,” the irony of which was not lost on a few members of the media who gathered for the press conference. That may just be the word young urban professionals would call local politicians for seemingly dragging their feet to allow the new wave of livery service in upstate New York. But, in the end, it was those politicians who sang the benefits of having one of the swiftest growing industries in the country.
“Ridesharing has been a long time coming and I’m very proud to have been a part of the process of getting it here,” said Matt Baumgartner, co-chair, Capital Region Ridesharing Coalition, and owner of the Olde English Pub and Wolff’s Biergarten. “Whether you’re going out to dinner, or getting home from the bar, it’s reassuring to know that there is now a safe and convenient transportation option out there.”
The coalition, composed of businesses, residents and community leaders, have spent the past three years pushing for the legalization of ridesharing. The ease of transportation is purported to help increase local tourism, decrease drunk driving instances and create flexible job opportunities. The coalition has long lobbied for ridesharing for its convenience and potential to attract more traffic to downtown venues
Albany Mayor Kathy Sheehan, a longtime supporter of the initiative, said the cultural shift to ridesharing speaks to a change in economics driven by technology. The internet-dependent service has grown in popularity in larger metropolitan areas at a pace that has left some skeptical about its practical use.
“We can sit around and say we don’t like it, but you know what,” said Sheehan, “it was happening anyway.” The mayor explained her concern for an Albany without ridesharing services present in other locations. Despite efforts to rebrand the Capital District as Tech Valley, Sheehan said prospective professionals traveling through Albany International Airport felt as if they were in the Stone Age. “We weren’t greeting our visitors in a very positive way.”
Frustrations came to a virtual head last June when Christopher took to Twitter to call out New York state Assemblyman Phil Steck for being what he viewed as an obstacle. After a three-day barrage of tweets, Steck explained the wish to establish a regulating body, and an effort to lower insurance for ridesharing drivers. Those concerns, however, did not make him an obstacle. He was co-sponsor to a bill introduced by fellow Assemblyman John McDonald that would have named the Capital District Transportation Authority the regional regulating body.
“I’m very happy with it, at the end of the day,” said Steck. The legislation signed by Governor Andrew Cuomo ultimately named the state Department of Motor Vehicles as the regulating body. Conversely, cab driving services are regulated by individual municipalities. As a result, ridesharing services have been available in New York City, but nowhere else within the Empire State. Having the state, as opposed to 62 different cities each governing rules of service, will benefit both customer and proprietor, said the legislator. It will be easier for drivers to remain compliant. The present law also forces drivers to adhere to state human rights law — making it unlawful for drivers to discriminate. “I think we did what was necessary to smooth out some of the rough edges in these type of services,” said Steck.
Once the clock struck past midnight, the moment both Uber and Lyft’s
licenses with the DMV were in effect, Christopher stood roadside in downtown Troy with smartphone in hand, hailing for a ride through an Uber app. Within minutes, his ride arrived.
“Thousands of people here in the Albany area have signed up to drive with Uber — across the state over 50,000 people have signed up to drive,” said Carlie Waibel, a spokesperson for Uber. Proponents for the new industry see the potential for additional jobs and supplemental income.
Legislatures also believe the alternative transportation option will discourage more people from driving drunk, supported by a joint campaign between Uber and Mothers Against Drunk Driving. That campaign cites that 1,800 drunk related crashes were prevented in the state of California since Uber’s launch in 2012. However, scientists from the University of Southern California and Oxford University found no such correlation between ridesharing services and drunk driving prevention in a study published last June in American Journal of Epidemiology.
There is also a question over the potential increased traffic of suburban residents coming into Albany, Schenectady and Troy. The prospect of riders not having to worry about finding a place to park, or having to pay for parking, could persuade suburbanites to return to downtown venues for entertainment. In 2015, the Pew Research Center found 15 percent of ridesharing service users reside in the suburbs, compared to 21 percent who live within a city in the United States. However, with the Capital District often described as a giant suburb anchored by multiple cities, those numbers could increase. The same Pew Research report found 26 percent of users earn $75,000 or more, and 65 percent already own a car.
“It’s been fun working with the members of the Capital Region Ridesharing Coalition, and tonight we celebrate,” said Vic Christopher, co-chair, Capital Region Ridesharing Coalition. “This new form of transit is gonna change the way we get around, introducing a new culture of connectivity to our area.”
Michael Hallisey is Managing Editor of Spotlight Newspapers.