Plenty of bridges connect Minnesota's Twin Cities over the Mississippi River, but don't try to cross any of them in a car with a pink mustache on the grill. The adjacent cities have taken very different stances on rideshare services or "transportation network companies" like Lyft (of pink mustache fame) and UberX. While St. Paul has allowed them to operate since late last summer, Minneapolis insists that they can't do so without a proper taxi license.
An attempt by Lyft to defy the Minneapolis ban in February captures both sides of the situation quite clearly. Reports that Lyft had planned a launch party in the city prompted officials to announce that any drivers from the service would be ticketed and their cars impounded. Meanwhile, a St. Paul spokesman told the Pioneer Press that the city supports "businesses that are new and innovative and cater to a tech-savvy, younger crowd."
The differing approaches in the Twin Cities come down to interpretations of municipal licensing ordinances governing taxi cabs. The TNCs effectively function as taxis — a driver picking up a passenger for a fee — but consider themselves mere social platforms for travelers to find one another.
In St. Paul, which defines cabs rather strictly (in local ordinance, they are cars for hire "equipped with a taximeter and a distinctive color scheme"), Lyft and UberX don't qualify as taxis and therefore don't need a taxi license to operate. "Based on our transportation regulations, primarily in this case around taxicabs, they don't really fit the definition of a taxi cab," says Ricardo Cervantes, director of safety and inspections for St. Paul. "Therefore they're kind of out there and not required to be regulated at this point."
In Minneapolis, meanwhile, the licensing language is a bit broader, and officials have determined that TNCs do, in fact, need a license to operate — a regulation the companies refuse to abide. In response to a request for additional detail from Cities, a Minneapolis spokesman returned a statement: "Transportation network companies such as Lyft provide personal transportation services for hire that mirror traditional taxicab services."
The Twin Cities are hardly alone: cities across the United States are struggling to determine how TNCs fit within their existing regulatory framework. Much of the matter comes down to liability. In St. Paul, Cervantes says officials have been assured by Lyft and Uber that participating cars have commercial insurance sufficient to cover passengers in the event of an accident — though the actual policies remain to be seen.
"That's still a concern for us," he says. "We're now engaging both of those TNCs to see exactly what does that policy looks like. We've had some conversations. We haven't nailed down the language yet."
In Minneapolis, officials say they have "no evidence" that Lyft operates with commercial or personal liability insurance capable of covering drivers or passengers. That "leaves a serious gap in protecting customers and drivers," according to the city's official statement. "Ensuring that the proper insurance is in place is one of the reasons we require licensing in the first place."
Despite the outstanding questions of coverage, the TNC model offers potential advantages that city officials should also be considering, says Cervantes. If ridesharing reduces the number of vehicles on city streets, for instance, that helps St. Paul toward its larger regulatory goal of improving public safety. Beyond that, he says, affordable mobility options expand the transportation network for all residents.
"Economically, that's a good thing," says Cervantes. "If people find there are other folks traveling in the same direction, or have the same destination the same time they need it, they could actually form something similar to a carpool. That might be a reliable source of transportation for someone who might otherwise not be able to afford to take a cab and may not be on a bus line."
Whatever their current differences, the Twin Cities are working toward a TNC reconciliation. Both cities say they've formed a regional task force — along with the airports commission — to propose new regulations on the matter. (Minneapolis expects a draft to be available by June.) The goal is to create regulations consistent enough so travelers can go from one city to the other regardless of race, creed, or mustache color.