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Relief and Trepidation as Ride Hailing Spreads Across New York


Brian Rybak, an Uber driver, in East Hampton, N.Y. He recently began working for the company after ride-hailing apps became legal across the state.
Credit Gordon M. Grant for The New York Times​

Brian Rybak's first day as an Uber driver in the Hamptons did not start off well.

Moments after midnight on Friday, about 24 hours after it became legal in New York State for ride-hailing services to operate outside New York City, Mr. Rybak checked his cellphone, clicked to accept a ride request and drove his shiny black Lincoln MKZ to the given address in East Hampton, Long Island.

After several turns down dark streets, Mr. Rybak realized he had been called to a cemetery. "I think I'm being punked," he said. Across the graveyard, cellphone lights blinked in the darkness, perhaps belonging to the pranksters.

As Mr. Rybak drove through the Long Island towns on June 30, learning both the pitfalls and perks of his new job as a driver for the multibillion-dollar company, drivers around the state were doing the same.

The law was passed this spring after two years of campaigning by companies like Lyft, Via and Uber, which had been banned from operating upstate and on Long Island because of the type of insurance coverage such companies carry for its drivers, among other factors. The new law, which was championed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat, amended the rules and put ride-hailing services under the jurisdiction of the State Department of Motor Vehicles, rather than individual cities and towns. Localities may still regulate traditional taxi operations.

A second law strengthened restrictions on who may be a driver, requiring background checks and barring all sex offenders.

"Extending ride sharing across New York is a matter of fairness that brings new transportation options and - with it - new economic opportunity and innovation," Mr. Cuomo said in a statement on June 6. "This framework provides for a fair, safe and compressive ride-sharing system that will benefit communities in every corner of this state."

In Amherst, a suburb of Buffalo, Carolyn Ehmann's first day driving for Uber was Thursday. To her, the change felt like a boon to her city, "part of this brand new renaissance of Buffalo," she said.

"I am really looking forward to this. I've used Uber in probably 12 other cities" outside New York, Ms. Ehmann added. "When I get in an Uber, I get in the front seat. I want to get to know the driver."

But Alfonso Falsone, the owner of Queen City Taxi in Buffalo, viewed the change with trepidation. "It's going to hurt all the cab companies," he said. "I think Andrew Cuomo and the mayor of Buffalo - what they're doing isn't right."

"A lot of people are going to lose their jobs," Mr. Falsone added. "It's good for the consumer, but our drivers are screwed."

As ride-hailing companies continue to expand the market - every state except South Dakota now permits them - there have been misgivings about their effect on traditional cab companies. In addition, Uber has used technologies to circumvent local laws, for which it is now the subject of a federal inquiry. It has been fined repeatedly in some of the 450 cities where it operates in worldwide. Its founder, Travis Kalanick, once celebrated for his brash tactics, resigned in June as chief operating officer, after the company's culture of widespread sexual harassment and discrimination was exposed.

"We are focused on the next chapter," said Alix Anfang, a spokeswoman for Uber. "We've had some missteps."

The new law, she said, holds the companies to a tough standard, which Uber welcomes as chance to prove its mettle. For example, the law permits counties and cities of more than 100,000 people to opt out for any reason.

"We fought to pass this bill for years, and we are not going to squander the opportunity," Ms. Anfang said. "We see this as an opportunity to up our game."

Adrian Durbin, a spokesman for Lyft, said there were few regulations governing the app's technology when the company began five years ago.

"We prefer having rules on the books," he said. "Having regulations, first of all, it ensures that everyone knows what the rules are, and it provides legitimacy to the industry."

In East Hampton, Mr. Rybak's first night driving improved markedly as it continued, with runs to bars like the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett to pick up tipsy and grateful customers.

Two summers ago, Uber stopped operating in the Hamptons when local officials imposed a rule requiring all taxi drivers to have a physical office in the town of East Hampton, which includes Montauk, Amagansett, Wainscott and part of Sag Harbor. Passengers were left to find local taxis, and they often grumbled that the cabs were slow to arrive and charged high fares. Some also complained that local cab companies did not have apps to summon a taxi, forcing customers to call a dispatcher.

In the Hamptons, the reaction to the return of ride-hailing services has been: Finally. Julia Guiheen, sitting at the bar in the restaurant Cittanuova, said she wished it had happened sooner, specifically before her birthday in May, when she turned 21. She wanted to go out and celebrate as soon as the clock struck midnight and she could have a legal drink.

"There was no Uber," said Ms. Guiheen, who will be a senior at Butler University in Indiana in the fall. "Me and my cousin wanted to go to Sag Harbor and thought, 'Let's take Uber.'" Instead, she said, "we had my mother and my aunt drive us."
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