Shortly after Lyft got rolling Friday in St. Louis, the city began an effort to curb the ride-sharing service.
The company threw a launch party in the Cherokee Business District. Then the app-based service had its new drivers attach furry pink mustaches to the front grilles of their cars, then drive off the parking lot onto Jefferson Avenue and beyond.
“I just feel like St. Louis should really embrace it and see what it’s about,” said Jermasa Dees, 27, of the Fox Park neighborhood who was one of about three dozen new Lyft drivers who attended the party. “Just give it a try.”
The San Francisco-based company ignored a cease and desist order from the city’s taxi commission when its smartphone app went live at 7 p.m. Friday. If you pulled up the Lyft app, dozens of little car icons dotted a map of the city.
City Alderman Scott Ogilvie, whose ward is on the west edge of the city, Tweeted that a Lyft driver had been cited 90 minutes after the service launched.
“When St. Louis chooses to punish @Lyft drivers, it doesn’t hurt the company,” Ogilvie said on Twitter. “It hurts the employees, who are St. Louis residents.”
Richard Callow, a spokesman for the St. Louis Metropolitan Taxicab Commission, confirmed the citation. He said that enforcement officers were also handing Lyft drivers lists of registered cab companies that are hiring.
Ron Klein, the commission’s executive director, said that in addition to the tickets, the commission planned to be in court Monday to seek an injunction to shut down Lyft.
“We just want everybody to be legal,” Klein said.
Paige Thelen, a Lyft spokeswoman, said injunctions and tickets wouldn’t stop the app from operating. She added that Lyft would support the drivers, which could include paying their fines, “if anything happens.”
The Lyft app lets users to look for members who offer rides, but there is no set payment. Instead, passengers are encouraged, but not required, to make a donation when the ride is over.
“I think St. Louis is excited,” Thelen said. “We have seen a great reaction.”
Lyft drivers outfit their cars with friendly pink mustaches, and brand themselves as separate from for-hire taxi services.
“I’m going to have to tell you what drew me — the pink mustache. Oh, yeah,” confessed Dees, who saw an add for Lyft drivers on Facebook. “I could use some extra money, and I’m a social person.”
Ride-sharing services such as Lyft and competitor Uber are controversial in cities across the nation. In Houston, the companies have recently collected violations as officials struggle for a solution.
Officials in St. Louis argue that they are acting like unlicensed taxi services.
“We don’t want to be the bad guy,” said Klein. “We are just worried about insurance coverage, and background checks for the drivers.”
Others say services such as Lyft are offering new modes of transportation that challenge the long entrenched status quo.
Joe Quinn, 31, of University City, signed up as a Lyft driver after finding the website while doing research on the transportation industry. He’s a Washington University graduate student studying entrepreneurship.
“I like the concept of collaborative consumption,” he said. “I think it’s more sustainable. And it makes sense if it is just sitting there anyway you might as well monetize it and make money.”
The services are popular among tech-savvy young people, a group cities such as St. Louis hope to attract.
“I think this is going to be a good push for the city to relax their onerous restrictions on the taxi industry,” Quinn said.
The happy hour event was held Friday night at Nebula, a co-working space in the Cherokee Business District for entrepreneurs, followed by the launch parade.
“We’ve had a few visits from the Metropolitan Taxicab Commission in the past month,” a post on Nebula’s Facebook page said. “The happy hour launch party this Friday could get interesting.”
Though members of the media weren’t allowed inside the launch party, it appeared to go smoothly without any visits from officials. Thelen, the Lyft spokeswoman, pointed out that no money was changing hands between drivers and riders who sign up get free rides for the first 15 days. That’s another reason the service doesn’t fall within the typical taxi rules, she said.
John Joern, 31, owns The Whiskey Ring, which opened in December on Cherokee Street. He thinks the city is ready for more transportation options — one of his bartenders had to wait three hours for a cab on a recent night, he said. He and his girlfriend, Amanda Krebel, 31, who is opening a community darkroom in Nebula, attended the party as interested business owners.
“It’s not like a normal city where you can sit outside and wait and you can catch a cab,” Krebel said.
“Any cab service is the appeal,” Joern said.