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Transportation transformation: More Lyft drivers in Mitchell changing city's taxi services

E-Z Ride taxi driver David Fyler keeps track of the time he picks up a passenger from Shopko last week in Mitchell. (Matt Gade / Republic)

Art Streetman has seen plenty of changes in his eight years of owning one of Mitchell's local taxi businesses.

But none of those changes matched what the owner of E-Z Ride Taxi has seen with the app-based rideshare service Lyft, which first made its appearance in Mitchell about one year ago. Now, there's a definite transition in Mitchell's taxi services.

When the first Lyft driver was approved in Mitchell in February 2018, there were three taxi businesses in the city. Now, there are seven city-approved Lyft drivers and two taxi businesses.

There is not a cap on the number of Lyft drivers that can operate as rideshare cabs in the city of Mitchell.

"It's tough knowing that an unlimited number of Lyft drivers can get a taxi license in the city of Mitchell," said Streetman, whose business has five vans. "It hurts any taxi company, not just mine."

And Streetman says there's an unfair advantage for Lyft drivers in comparison to his private business.

Bob Unruh, a Lyft driver in Mitchell, said he pays just under $15 a month to insure his personal vehicle that also serves as his Lyft rideshare cab. That's about $180 per year on top of his own personal car insurance. Unruh's additional insurance with Lyft is made possible through a specific insurance policy created for "transportation network companies," or TNC, like Lyft and Uber. A TNC is any company that matches passengers with drivers via websites and mobile apps.

Streetman, meanwhile, pays $8,500 annually to insure all five of his taxis. Streetman said he also has to list each driver or employee to properly be insured as a taxi business under South Dakota law.

"There is only a couple of companies that even offer taxi insurance in the state, and we have used both to insure our vans," Streetman said. "They're both expensive, that's for sure."

For Streetman and Lori's Lift, the only other local taxi business currently operating in Mitchell, each of their cabs must have commercial license plates. Lyft doesn't require those, adding more overhead expenses for local taxi operations.

"We don't have to have commercial plates on our vehicles like a taxi cab does, so we can operate with our own license plate," Unruh said. "It's real slick how Lyft has things set up."

With Speedy Taxi recently denied its license from the city council due to a myriad of legal troubles and Lori's Lift coming under fire for operating a taxi business without a state sales tax license for nearly an entire calendar year, Unruh said he's seen a boost in riders.

Those same reasons have led E-Z Ride Taxi to see an increase in customers this past month, but the clientele is significantly different.

"A lot of our clientele is our elderly people, along with LifeQuest," Streetman said. "We go to Countryside Living the most, and some of these people don't have or know how to use an app on a smartphone."

Streetman — who said he still uses a flip phone — said he understands the importance of a traditional cab service that an older demographic of people can call with any type of phone and pay in cash, unlike Lyft, which requires a credit card-only payment to access the app.

Mitchell's taxi license ordinance

The city's taxi ordinance mandates that all taxi services, which include Lyft and local taxi businesses, must submit a $50 taxi license application, along with a $50 vehicle inspection fee, to begin operating as a taxi. That's then annually renewed by the city council.

It was this specific section of the taxi ordinance that brought Tim Goldammer, a local Lyft driver of Mitchell, and Tom Anez, Lyft council adviser of Sioux Falls, to the podium during the citizens' input portion of the Tuesday's city council meeting, where they requested an ordinance change that would be tailored to benefit Lyft drivers.

"We would like to request consideration for the council to look at the current taxi ordinance that we feel isn't updated to fit the needs of transportation network company taxi services," Goldammer said at the meeting. "We feel by the city updating this ordinance, the playing field will be equal to other taxi services."

Goldammer and Anez suggested the council consider mimicking the taxi ordinance in Sioux Falls that was passed in 2015 and exclusively created for TNC rideshare companies such as Lyft.

In the Sioux Falls taxi ordinance, Lyft pays a one-time $1,500 application fee each year for all Lyft drivers in Sioux Falls..

"Currently, each Lyft driver in Mitchell pays $100 because we have to each apply separately," Goldammer said of the city's taxi license application.

The other area that Goldammer and Anez outlined is asking for the council to consider changing the wording in the ordinance to allow Sioux Falls Lyft drivers to assist drivers in Mitchell for up to 10 days in a calendar year.

"One thing I want to address in regard to Mitchell's ordinance, if the Lyft drivers in Mitchell are unable to handle the amount of passengers, which is very frequent on the weekend, they've asked for Sioux Falls drivers to come over and assist," Anez said Tuesday. "The problem is that the subsection in the ordinance does not allow for Sioux Falls drivers to come over without getting city council's approval."

During the taxi discussions among council members, Council President Steve Rice voiced his opinion in opposition to the city playing a role in being involved with regulating taxi vehicles.

"Why city government chooses to regulate one business and not others for vehicle safety is perplexing to me," Rice said. "The city doesn't license any other businesses, like food delivery services and courier services, which have vehicles on the road every day and many times travel more miles than any of the taxi services."

But despite the recent changes and constant evolution of Mitchell's taxi transportation services, Streetman said he's going to maintain serving the Mitchell community each ride at a time.

"It's a people business, and our customers come first," Streetman said. "We value our customers, because that's one thing we can always control."

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