Proponents say Uber, Lyft would help promote safety, among other boons

ROCHESTER — Police chiefs across the state support bringing Uber and Lyft to upstate New York.

It is all about option and choice, according to Greece Police Chief Pat Phelan. He's a vice president for the New York State Association of Chiefs of Police. That group is now pushing hard to bring those transportation network companies to upstate New York.

“People are going to drink,” Phelan said. “If you can offer them a way to get to where they want to go when they've been drinking and get home at a price that's reasonable, I think people will use it. That's going to make it safer."

Phelan said his officers make about 250 DWI arrests each year in Rochester’s biggest suburb. He'd like to see that number go down, and that's why he supports bringing Uber and Lyft to Rochester. Those ridesharing services are now available in New York City, but until the state legislature takes action, they will not be available upstate.

New York is just one of three states where ridesharing isn't fully legal. (The others: Wyoming and Alaska.) It's expected to be one of the hottest debates when lawmakers go back to Albany next month. The New York State Association of Chiefs of Police is now pushing to get it passed. Its president, Cheektowaga Police Chief David Zack, wrote to Governor Andrew Cuomo, saying ridesharing is more than just popular, it is an important tool to significantly improve public safety that upstate New York should have access to.

“We just like the idea of having options for people to rideshare or get a safe ride rather than drive a car when they've been drinking,” said Phelan.

Josh Hauck, 28, has epilepsy and high functioning autism. Because of that, he can't drive, meaning Hauck struggles to find transportation for his social life. What he wants is simple: To go the grocery store without walking, to Christmas shop without asking a family member to take him, and to share his passion for music with anyone who will listen.

"Uber could change everything in my entire life," Hauck said.

He doesn't feel comfortable taking the RTS buses — "I don't feel comfortable with my high-functioning autism being around strangers," he said. And while he can take Medical Motors, it's only for medical appointments.

Hauck wrote a letter to the governor asking for lawmakers to expand Uber into western New York. In the letter, he explains how Uber would make having a job easier. He wouldn't have to exchange cash with the driver and he would be able to see a picture of the driver, and track the driver's location to know exactly when they will be arriving. 

Researchers at Temple University studied cities in California between 2009, when Uber was created, and 2014. According to their findings, if the lower costing service Uber X were to be implemented, 500 lives could be saved each year. Another study, coauthored by researchers from USC and the University of Oxford, has a differing view. CNN says the second study finds Uber had no impact on the number of drunk driving deaths, in part because people who are drunk make fewer rational decisions.

With chiefs of police across the state pushing to bring ridesharing services upstate, the Upstate Transportation Association — which lobbies for taxi drivers — released a statement saying: “We are surprised that the Association of Chiefs of Police signaled support for upstate ridesharing, while Uber refuses to fingerprint drivers outside New York City.”

“"It’s a private business, and I’m sure they want to be successful, so part of their business model is to ride you with a safe driver,” Phelan countered.

Rochester Chamber of Commerce President Bob Duffy, a former city mayor and New York lieutenant governor, last month argued for the ridesharing services.

"We want to attract people and give off a vibe of Rochester and the Finger Lakes region being an up and coming, really forward-thinking community," Duffy said. "I think we gotta get with it."

This is a debate that is going to play out over the next few months, possibly through June if there's no resolution right away when lawmakers go back to Albany next month. Ride sharing requires a type of group insurance that currently isn't allowed in New York.

Uber has started an on-line petition to ratchet up the pressure on lawmakers. More than 106,000 people have added their names to it. The petition can be found at https://action.uber.org/ny/.