SALT LAKE CITY — Oh, how the times have changed.
Well, sort of.
Back in 2014, the first of the so-called TNCs, transportation network companies, descended on Salt Lake City and ignited a maelstrom of confusion and turmoil for regulators and outrage among operators of traditional taxi services. The business model embraced by Lyft, Uber and others of similar ilk — using smartphone apps and independent contractor drivers to seamlessly connect with, and transport, riders in privately owned vehicles — accomplished exactly what it was supposed to. It disrupted the ground transportation landscape.
Salt Lake City officials looked to bust the new companies by deploying "secret shoppers" to hail the unlicensed and unregulated drivers who would later receive warnings or tickets in the mail, some with fines up to $6,500. Drivers from the legacy cab companies lined up at City Council meetings to harangue members for their failure to defend their companies. Drivers working for the new companies rallied as well, touting the new opportunities to earn income in the new, work-when-you-want gig economy.
Concerns from government officials about the new operators included unanswered questions about insurance liability, background checks, vehicle safety and accessibility for those with disabilities.
Ride-hailing operators pushed back, covering fines for drivers and standing in firm defense of the new approach.
While court battles loomed, a move by state legislators in 2015, one that carved out a new business definition for the companies, mostly settled the issue, and just a few months later, airport officials receded on a hardline about who could, or couldn't, operate on the facility's property. Soon after, tidy designated pick-up and drop-off areas for TNC users appeared near the airport's main terminal.
On Wednesday, Lyft representatives were joined by local officials, including state legislators Sen. Luz Escamilla, D-Salt Lake City, and Rep. Sandra Hollins, D-Salt Lake City, to cut the ribbon on a new driver support center on North Temple near the Utah State Fairgrounds.
Lyft's market manager for Utah, Jeremy Neigher, said the facility, which will be staffed by seven full-time Lyft employees, was a reflection of the company's rapid growth in the Salt Lake City area.
“We’re thrilled to grow our physical presence in Utah and provide face-to-face, real-time support for drivers,” Neigher said in a statement. “Most importantly, we can hear their views on Lyft and our offerings in person and address feedback in real time."
While the company has a penchant for keeping its operational data private, and Neigher declined to identify how many Utahns are currently driving for Lyft, industry watchers say the company is growing at a faster clip in the U.S. than its primary, and much larger, competitor, Uber. Both companies are setting up for public stock offerings this year, with Lyft about to take the first step into public markets.
According to a recent Wall St. Journal story, Lyft is poised to raise some $2 billion in its initial public stock offering on a valuation of around $23 billion. While the company's 2018 revenues of $2.16 billion more than doubled its take from the previous year, losses also rose to about $911 million from 2017's $688.3 million in red ink. Lyft stock could make its market debut as early as March 29, according to the Journal's coverage.
Uber, on the other hand, has a valuation generally believed to be in the range of $120 billion and is expected to make its own stock offering later this year.
While founders and investors in these companies stand to make millions, or billions, on the backside of the stock deals, much conjecture has surrounded exactly how much, or how little, the companies' individual drivers make.
Kimberlee Walker, a Salt Lake City-based Lyft driver, said she has has been driving for the company since May 2014. Working just on weekends and when large events are in town, Walker said she typically makes $100-$200 each week but has a day job and doesn't rely on her Lyft wages to subsist.
"I have a full-time job and this is something I can do on the side," Walker said. "It's great to have the extra income and the flexibility to drive when I want to."Comment on this story
While the early operational issues facing companies like Lyft appear to be in the past, Utah legislators grappled, unsuccessfully, with another disruptive peer-to-peer model in the just-completed session, this time for car rental services.
Two competing bills, one from each legislative body, failed to find support and the conversation was punted to the interim. The challenge at hand is how to level the playing field between legacy car rental companies like Enterprise and Hertz and a new model that connects private vehicle owners who make their cars and trucks available for rent to those seeking a temporary ride, via a smartphone app.