After two-and-a-half years battling two ride-hailing companies that moved onto its turf, it looks like Yellow Cab of Pittsburgh has finally conceded defeat to Lyft and Uber.
In a move best described as “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” Yellow Cab’s parent company, Pittsburgh Transportation Group, announced in June that it’s switching gears and doing away with all but a few of its yellow taxis in favor of silver zTrip vehicles. Originally, the app-based zTrip service was Yellow Cab’s answer to ride-hailing. Now, it will replace the company’s traditional taxi model altogether.
“For good or bad, it was time,” says PTG President Jamie Campolongo. “It’s like what happened with Blockbuster; when Netflix came along, you could still pick up movies at the store, but there was a better way of doing things.”
The short time it took Uber and Lyft to get a foothold in Pittsburgh speaks to the need for transportation alternatives in the region. The ride-hailing model connects drivers in their own cars with customers via smartphone apps for cashless transactions.
“Yellow Cab has been an important part of the Pittsburgh community for more than 103 years,” Mayor Bill Peduto, a strong supporter of Uber and Lyft, said at a June 28 press conference at PTG headquarters. “I am excited to see that proud tradition continue as Yellow Cab evolves into zTrip, reaffirming its commitment to its riders, its employees, and everyone who lives and works in this great city.”
When Lyft and Uber moved into Pittsburgh, in early 2014, Yellow Cab, which was then a 101-year-old company, did what taxi companies in other cities have done: They fought. Pittsburgh Transportation Group joined forces with the much-smaller Star Transportation Group and sent a letter to Peduto urging him to pass an ordinance allowing city police officers to cite Uber and Lyft drivers for violating state law.
That didn’t work. While Lyft and Uber did experience initial hurdles — including entanglements with state regulators in Pennsylvania and elsewhere, and fines from the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission for conducting illegal service — both are now operating under two-year temporary licenses issued by the PUC.
So in May 2014, Yellow filed for a temporary license for Yellow X, its own version of a ride-hailing app which eventually became zTrip. Delayed by technical glitches, the service didn’t hit the streets until May 2015. While it was gearing up for the launch, Yellow sought a rate increase and attempted to get a surcharge added to weekend trips. (That also failed.)
By the time zTrip was finally up and running last year, Lyft and Uber had already expanded to other cities in Pennsylvania, including Harrisburg and State College.
But now zTrip offers a few things the other services don’t: The ability to schedule a ride in advance; the ability to telephone for a ride, which is important to riders without smartphone access; and no surge pricing. Customers can still hail a zTrip from the street and get one at the airport, just as they could with Yellow Cab, and customers can pay their fares in cash if they choose.
And doing away with the Yellow Cab name might serve zTrip as well. Over time, the company has gotten a bad reputation, Campolongo says, along with many other taxi companies that haven’t been able to adapt to the on-demand economy. Whether zTrip is the answer remains to be seen, but the company just received a renewal of its two-year temporary license from the PUC.
Campolongo acknowledges that there will be a “steep learning curve” for customers as they adjust to the new business model. There are now approximately 125 cars in the zTrip fleet, and the transition will continue over the next several months. The company plans to spend about $4 million on a rebranding effort, which will include retiring some of Yellow’s older vehicles, and repainting some with zTrip’s new silver color scheme.
PTG will retain the Yellow Cab name in Pittsburgh, Campolongo says, partly so a competitor can’t use it, and will keep about 10 of its fleet of more than 300 yellow taxis on the road.
“We’re not going to abandon the market that built the company,” he says. “We don’t want people to think there will be no taxis in town.”