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Judge Orders Ride-Share 'Lyft' To Stop Service

Courtesy of Lyft

(Updated at 4 p.m., Mon., April 21)

A St. Louis judge has told a new ride share service that it must halt its operation in the city and county.

The St. Louis Metropolitan Taxi Cab Commission sued "Lyft" last week for entering the region’s market without registering.

Lyft allows customers to summon drivers using an app on their cell phones. Once the ride is over, customers pay the driver through credit card information stored within the application.

On Monday, Judge David Dowd granted a temporary restraining order against the San Francisco-based company, saying operating without the commission's oversight could cause harm to the public.

"Defendant [Lyft] shall disable its software application from use by prospective riders within the City of St. Louis or St. Louis County," Dowd wrote.

Lyft did not have anyone present at Monday's hearing and did not immediately return a request for comment. As of Monday afternoon, Lyft's app showed several cars still operating.

The judge's order remains in effect until a hearing scheduled for May 6.

Lyft drivers use their own cars to provide rides, company spokeswoman Paige Thelen said last week. The company cultivates a friendly image, with its trademark pink mustache on car grills and a fist bump for passengers when the ride begins.

Thelen said in an e-mail to St. Louis Public Radio that most of the company’s drivers only drive “a couple of hours a week outside of their full-time jobs to make extra money and meet new people in their community.”

“We saw St. Louis as a perfect fit for Lyft,” Thelen said. “Many residents in St. Louis rely on their own personal cars to get around. We believe that Lyft will help to fill a gap in transportation solutions, bring communities together and allow residents and visitors to be more flexible when getting around the city and finding a safe, reliable and affordable ride wherever they’re headed.”

The company began service last Friday.

But Ron Klein – the taxi commission’s executive director – says Lyft never contacted his agency. That’s in contrast to other cell phone app-based services like Carmel and Uber that have worked with the commission.

“We put in place these safeguards to make sure the public is protected and the person who is driving them is safe,” Klein said. “Taxi cabs are public transportation. So we want to make sure the person who gets into the taxi cab can rest assured that the guy sitting in the front seat with them is not a registered sex offender. Those are some of the concerns the taxi commission has with Lyft.”

Thelen emphasized that the company’s drivers go through a screening process, undergo strict background and driving record checks, and are backed by a $1 million excess commercial liability insurance policy. But Klein said that doesn’t satisfy the commission’s questions about the service.

“They say they do background checks, but they won’t tell you how they do them. They say they provide insurance. But everybody who has an automobile, a lot of people are driving their parents’ automobiles who are college students,” Klein said. “They’re driving their personal automobiles. And everybody’s personal insurance says you can’t use it for commercial enterprises.”

At least one Lyft driver caught hauling passengers was issued a citation over the weekend.

“I can tell you from my standpoint, I don’t want to issue any of these people summonses,” Klein said. “It’s not a good thing. It’s not something that I look forward to doing. But unfortunately for me, I’m charged with enforcing the law. And so that’s what I have to do.”

When asked why it didn’t go through the taxi cab commission, Thelen said Lyft “is a new, peer-to-peer model that doesn't fit into existing framework for taxis in St. Louis.”

“We’ve been impressed by the city’s commitment to innovation and sustainability, and we look forward to working with local leaders toward a permanent solution that focuses on safety and allows ride sharing to thrive,” Thelen said. “The St. Louis community has already expressed excitement and enthusiasm around Lyft's arrival as an affordable, convenient, and fun new way of getting around, and we believe the city will not want to take that service away from residents.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.