Imagine you tap your need for a ride to the grocery store into your smartphone, and it connects you with someone else in your neighborhood who is headed in the same direction and willing to pick you up on the way.
That's the concept behind the peer-to-peer ride-share application Lyft, which is launching in Baltimore at 4 p.m. on Oct. 17, according to a spokeswoman for the San Francisco-based start-up.
The company's application, which first launched in California in June 2012 and is available for download on smartphones, connects users seeking rides with pre-screened drivers who live in the same community — essentially facilitating carpooling and travel cost-sharing.
The service is similar in some ways to Uber, which has offered hirable sedans through an app in Baltimore since January, and has run into trouble with regulators in Maryland and other parts of the country over bans on unlicensed taxi services.
Maryland's Public Service Commission is considering whether to require Uber to become licensed. The agency's staff said in May that regulations "were not drafted with a smart phone application in mind" but "can still be reasonably applied to the companies that use these applications."
Lyft's payment arrangement — riders make "donations" through the app, and drivers can get tips — has also caused bumps in the road, with a class-action lawsuit being brought in San Francisco by one driver for labor violations.
But, like Uber and other companies in the ride-sharing realm, Lyft says it is solely a technology company operating an app — and is therefore not subject to regulations on traditional taxi or limo companies.
The Lyft application makes a "suggested donation" at the end of each trip, based on miles traveled, and the rider can then give more or less. Suggested rates in Baltimore haven't been set yet, but an average trip in San Francisco runs about $10 to $12, the company said.
The service helps drivers recoup some of the cost of owning a car, while helping riders survive without owning one, the company said.
Erin Simpson, the Lyft spokeswoman, said the company looks for "places that have innovative approaches to transportation," and recently picked Baltimore amid a nationwide review of some 20 potential cities for expansion.
Its model has captured the attention of many in an era when the transportation industry is being reshaped by tech innovation.
A recent U.S. PIRG Education Fund study found more young people are using technology to find new ways to transit through major American cities than ever before, and Maryland transportation officials have said they are focusing on that trend as they look to improve transportation options.
James Smith, the state's transportation secretary, included ride-sharing in a list of travel options he said the state is embracing.
Touting itself as a transportation "movement," Lyft said it reduces negative environmental impacts of driving by matching individuals with "common interests and common destinations."
More than a million rides have been arranged so far through the service in the 14 cities in which it operates nationwide — the closest being Washington.
Other cities include Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles and Seattle.
Drivers, which the company runs background checks on, among other safety measures, place large pink mustaches on the front of their vehicles and give riders a fist bump when they slide into the front seat.
Riders then pay a "donation" for the ride through the app, of which the drivers receive 80 percent. Drivers aren't told what amount riders donate.
Hopeful drivers must apply to work with the service online, must be 23 years old and have had a license for at least a year, and can't have had more than two moving violations in the past three years.
They cannot have a record of violent crime, sexual offenses, theft, property damage or any felony convictions. They also must have a 2000 model-year vehicle or newer that passes a vehicle safety inspection.
Drivers and passengers rate each other after every Lyft ride, the company said.
Jamie Smith Hopkins contributed to this report.
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