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Anchorage cab drivers grapple with arrival of Uber, Lyft, and more taxis on the road

  • Author: Annie Zak
  • Updated: March 4
  • Published March 4

Taxi drivers stage a rolling strike past city hall on Friday, Feb. 23, 2018. The Anchorage Taxi Workers Alliance wants to see the city regulate ride hailing services like Uber and Lyft and pause the issuance of new taxi permits, among other demands. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

Kevin Ruston has been driving a taxi for 15 years in Anchorage. Lately, the job has gotten tougher.

"Business is down," he said one recent weekday from the driver's seat of his yellow Prius, heading southbound on C Street. "When Uber and Lyft come in — to say they grow the pie, obviously that's not true. The recession doesn't help. Changes in the industry …  I don't want to pick one thing to say why it's getting worse."

Uber and Lyft — app-based services passengers can use to hail rides — shook up the Anchorage cab industry when they arrived in Alaska last year. A recent regulatory change that adds more taxis to the city's streets brought more competition. Drivers say they're making less money, a dispatch company has seen its call volume go down, and the value of taxi permits has dropped.

Now, the Anchorage Assembly is looking at an ordinance that would tweak regulations in hopes of helping cabs compete amidst the upheaval. Players in the taxi industry say the fact that Uber and Lyft don't have to contend with the same regulations that cabs do makes for an uneven playing field.

Suzie Smith is a taxi permit owner and leases a fleet of vehicles. She said her business has had to reduce its lease rates for drivers to stay competitive.

"I lost a lot of drivers because they weren't making the money they used to," said Smith. "They just went to different industries."

One cab driver, Bob Ransom, said he usually grosses $300 during the weekend of the Fur Rendezvous Open World Championship. This year, he made half that.

Taxis and app-based transportation network companies — as Uber and Lyft are called — offer basically the same service but exist in different worlds. Independent contractors who drive for Uber and Lyft don't have to contend with many of the rules or fees that apply to taxi drivers — like permit fees that top $1,000. Uber and Lyft drivers can turn the apps on and off whenever they want, setting their own schedules, whereas taxi drivers work specific shifts.

"We're always out here. The Uber guy has the choice of going home," Ruston said, adding that he thinks the city allowing more permits in the market is a bigger hindrance to business than ride-hailing companies. "If there's no business, you still have to sit out here."

The Municipality of Anchorage is assessing the effect of those app services on the local taxi industry.

"We've had a confluence of three issues that have hit us — the mandate of 116 new permits, the entrance of Uber and Lyft into Anchorage, and a contraction in the economy," said city transportation inspector Eric Musser. "It's all been in the last six months. … We're trying to flush it out and do the best we can."

Taxi drivers stage a rolling strike past city hall on Friday, Feb. 23, 2018. The Anchorage Taxi Workers Alliance wants to see the city regulate ride hailing services like Uber and Lyft and pause the issuance of new taxi permits, among other demands. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

A recent law change that mandates those 116 new permits in Anchorage in the span of five years went into effect in 2017, with 34 new permits hitting the market last year. The value of permits has dropped: The highest reported sale was $154,000 in 2014, and the lowest was $5,500 in November, Musser said.

The municipality regulates taxis in Anchorage. But state legislation passed last year to allow transportation network companies to operate in Alaska prohibits municipalities from imposing rules on them. Companies like Uber and Lyft are self-regulating.

"That has made it very difficult, I think, for the taxis to compete," said Anchorage Assemblyman Forrest Dunbar. He said the Assembly knew issuing more permits would disrupt the industry — the idea was to move away from a "limited entry system" and toward eventually just being a licensing system. At the time, Uber and Lyft hadn't announced their plans to come to Alaska.

The city has between 700 and 750 licensed chauffeurs, Musser said, but he added that there's no way to know how many are actually working. More than two-thirds of those drivers are immigrants, according to 2016 data from the city.

There are "hundreds" of active Uber drivers in Anchorage, company spokesman Nathan Hambley said in an email.

Smith, the permit owner, said she knows many drivers who rely on cabbing for full-time work to support their families. She sees Uber and Lyft as more of a side gig that people do when they want "a beer budget."

Some Anchorage taxi drivers gathered for what they referred to as a "rolling strike" one recent Friday, organized by cab driver and city mayoral candidate Timothy Huit. Their yellow cars snaked around City Hall downtown. Their demands, broadly, are to be regulated the same as transportation network companies.

"If you add more cabs and Uber and things — it wasn't a month before the night crew was in trouble," said Huit. "And now it's affecting the daytime."

Taxi driver Timothy Huit helped organized a “rolling strike” to advocate for regulation of ridesharing services Uber and Lyft. Photographed on February 22, 2018. (Marc Lester / ADN)

Scott Sexson lives in Anchorage and drives for both Uber and Lyft. He started it as a side-job "for extra fun money," but when he lost his job at FedEx he started driving full-time.

He usually makes most of his money overnight and on the weekends, especially with crowds leaving bars downtown in the early morning hours. Bar break is one place taxis grapple for space with Ubers and Lyfts. There are some designated curbside spots for taxis to pick up passengers, so people who drive for the apps often end up stopping in the middle of the street.

"There is a passenger area but cabs won't let Ubers in there," said Marie Johnston, who has been driving for Uber full-time for about two months. "I've had another friend who's an Uber driver who had a cabbie come out and start pounding on her window."

Driving has been a good experience because it allows for a flexible schedule, she said, and she'd never even considered driving a cab.

"It was a lot easier to sign up, everything was right there," she said. "With a cab, I have no idea how I would even go about signing up for something like that."

Alex Smith is a student at the University of Alaska Anchorage who started driving for Uber in October but doesn't do it regularly because it wasn't as lucrative as he'd hoped. Now, he said, it seems like there's an overabundance of drivers and not enough riders.

"So much of my time was spent waiting," he said.

Alaska Yellow Dispatch, located just off Old Seward Highway near East 66th Avenue in an office with a bright yellow hallway, is one of two cab dispatch companies in town. Kim Pavy, dispatch manager there, said call volume has been affected since Uber and Lyft came to town, though not as much as drivers' income.

"I think the playing field needs to be leveled," said Pavy. "Because really an (Uber) is just an unmarked taxi. Still paying someone to take you from point A to point B. So, I think we should just be treated equally."

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