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Pennsylvania PUC grants Uber license to operate in Pittsburgh

College students around Pittsburgh were disappointed early last summer when an investigation by the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) led to cease-and-desist orders for both Uber Technologies Inc. and Lyft Inc. On Thursday, however, the PUC voted 4–1 to grant an experimental license to Uber, allowing the company to operate across Pennsylvania. Before, Uber and Lyft were both operating under temporary authority from the PUC.

Uber and Lyft were founded in San Francisco in 2009 and 2012, respectively. Both companies use an app — available on iOS and Android — to give rides to users from drivers at a cheaper rate than most existing taxicab services. Uber, which serves over 200 cities worldwide, came to Pittsburgh earlier this year, followed closely by Lyft.

According to the terms of the PUC’s decision, Uber has to meet several demands within the next 30 days to continue operating in Pittsburgh, including enforcing background checks on drivers and ensuring that drivers inform their personal car insurers that they are driving for the company. Every driver, according to the decision, has to agree in writing to tell their auto insurers about their ride-sharing activity.

“Subject to certain conditions, we believe that this new type of transportation service can be of great benefit to the traveling public and should be certificated by the commission,” PUC Chairman Robert Powelson and Commissioner Pamela Witmer said in a joint statement.

PUC Vice Chairman John Coleman gave the dissenting decision at the hearing, saying that he did not think that Uber would meet the PUC’s stipulations, citing the fact that Uber and Lyft both continued operating, despite heavy fines, after the PUC issued the original cease-and-desist orders. While its fate was undecided, Uber appealed to its Pittsburgh user base with emails and petitions to keep the company in the city.

Carnegie Mellon students are glad that Uber received a license to operate in Pittsburgh. “I think it’s a good service,” junior neuroscience major Lawton Tellin said. “On a very cursory level, it’s so nice to be able to click one thing with your thumb and have a taxi come and pick you up.”

Tellin said that ridesharing services like Uber and Lyft are, in his experience, typically more reliable than Pittsburgh’s other, PUC-sanctioned taxi services.

“I don’t have very much experience with trying to take the taxi, the yellow cab in Pittsburgh, but the two times I tried was just like, the most unpleasant experience. Either they don’t pick up the phone, or they’re just like, ‘no.’ And I’ve only had wonderful experiences with Uber,” Tellin said.

Senior decision science and professional writing double major Meagan Leach, although she has a car in Pittsburgh, still uses Uber and Lyft. “[Uber and Lyft] are really great to use on weekends,” Leach said. “When you go out to bars and stuff like that, you don’t have to worry about driving home. That’s the only time I use them, though.”

Uber charges a base fare of $2, plus a “safe ride fee” of $1 and $.30 a minute or $1.25 a mile. Lyft, similarly, charges a base fare of $1.35, a $1.50 “trust & safety fee,” and $.27 per minute, or $1.13 a mile. The Pittsburgh Yellow Cab Company charges riders a base fee of $2.25 plus $1.75 per mile.

“The PUC confirmed today that Uber provides the safe and reliable rides that Pennsylvanians need and deserve,” Uber spokesman Taylor Bennett told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “We look forward to working with the PUC and the state legislature to get the details right so we can establish a permanent home for UberX ride-sharing in all of Pennsylvania.”

Last week Uber announced that it will no longer pick up passengers at the Pittsburgh International Airport. The ridesharing company won’t have the authority to do so until they are also granted a permit from the Airport Authority.

This decision does not change the situation in Philadelphia, where the Philadelphia Parking Authority controls the taxi service, and has not yet made a decision regarding either company. The PUC’s decision also doesn’t apply in nine other counties across Pennsylvania, because they were excluded in Uber’s application for license.

Lyft’s hearing will likely be during the PUC’s December meeting.