A silver car with a pink, fluffy mustache pegged to its front bumper rolls up to pick up a colleague and me. It's not a taxi, but we get in anyway. We're getting a Lyft to Publix.
Our driver, Jeniffer Erickson, greets us with a fist bump and a “hi, how are you?” She has black hair, a mild accent and friendly enthusiasm.
Lyft launched in Miami-Dade County about two weeks ago. It's an app that connects passengers in need of a ride with a Lyft-registered driver, similarly to Uber, the company that unsuccessfully tried to open shop in Miami last year. Alma Aldrich, a launch team manager at Lyft, says the main difference between the two apps is their business model.
“Lyft is your friend with a car,” says Aldrich. “[It's] purely peer to peer. Lyft drivers [don't generally use] commercially licensed vehicles; they’re driving their own cars on their own time, generally doing it as a part-time thing a couple hours a week to make some extra cash."
When Uber tried to make its Miami debut last year, the company faltered due to opposition from the Board of County Commissioners' transportation and aviation committee. Michael Hernandez, director of communications for the Office of the Mayor, says a majority of the committee was against rewriting the current Miami-Dade code, which regulates the taxi industry.
The committee hasn't approved Lyft yet, either. If code enforcement catches a Lyft driver in action, they are subject to a citation and a fine of up to $1000. Which, technically speaking, means that Lyft is operating illegally. But Mayor Gimenez supports having that kind of company operate in the county.
"Lyft, Uber, those kinds of things, I know that's the way we have to go into the future. We just have to find a way to bring our codes into the 21st century," he says.
Dennis Moss, chairman of the transportation and aviation committee, says it's not fair for companies like Lyft and Uber to come into the market when taxi services are required to be so heavily licensed and regulated.
"I'm not opposed to Uber, but I'm opposed to Uber coming in and having no regulations," he says. "If someone gets into someone's private vehicle, what insurance do they have?"
Lyft has an insurance protection plan, but Diego Feliciano, president of the South Florida Taxicab Association, doesn't buy it.
"They claimed to the Miami Herald that they have an umbrella policy for $100,000. That probably matters very little when Geico, your insurance, finds out that you were driving ... their vehicle 60/70,000 miles a year, and also picking up passengers like a commercial vehicle," Feliciano says. "Your [insurer] would probably cancel your insurance immediately, don't you think?"
Feliciano also says he thinks it's important residents of Miami-Dade County are aware of the circumstances of the vehicle they're getting into when they use Lyft.
“You can start selling hamburgers tomorrow on the corner of any street in Miami-Dade County without the proper licensing," he says, "but it won’t be long before somebody finds out that you’re not FDA’s burgers and you don’t have the proper accommodations to be doing this service."
Lyft may not be properly licensed in Miami-Dade County, but it is a more cost-effective way to get around than taxicabs. With Lyft, a 6-minute ride to Bayside would cost me $10.64. With a taxi, the cost would be more than twice that amount--$27.50, to be exact.
Feliciano, however, feels that "cheaper isn't always better." His advice to people who get around using Lyft: “I would tell them the first thing my mother told me when I was a little boy: Don’t get into the car with a stranger.”
Our Lyft driver Jeniffer Erickson, with her bubbly demeanor and positive attitude, certainly did not feel like a stranger, though. And the app shows riders a picture of their driver and their vehicle before they arrive, and even allows them to call drivers before pick-up. The "ghost number" disappears once the ride is over.
Lyft's Aldrich says anyone can become a driver as long as they pass a series of background checks, a vehicle inspection and driver mentor session. Our driver became Lyft-certified within three days of seeing an ad on Facebook.
"I applied because I'm at home all the time and I go to school online," Erickson says. "So I'm like, 'OK, let's do this. ... Let's try."
She ended our ride by giving us complimentary bottled water and pixie sticks decorated with the Lyft's signature pink mustache.
Feliciano says Lyft is a venture capitalist company that doesn't financially contribute to Miami-Dade County. Unlike the taxi industry, Lyft does not pay taxes. Conversely, Hernandez of the mayor's office says Mayor Gimenez wants to give consumers options for the growing Miami-Dade population.
He says "we need to come into the 21st Century."