Bayou City

After Abbott Signs Rideshare Bill, Lyft Returns to Houston

After Abbott Signs Rideshare Bill, Lyft Returns to Houston
Flickr/Spiros Vathis
The ridesharing service Lyft is back in Houston.

After a three-year absence, the company announced its comeback Wednesday. “We've had a huge interest in coming back to Houston for a long time,” Kaleb Miller, Lyft's Houston general manager, told the Houston Press. “We're really pleased we are able to do so now.”

The return comes after Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed the so-called “Rideshare Bill” last month. The law streamlines (read: reduces) regulations on ridesharing apps across the state, meaning companies like Uber and Lyft won’t need different rule books for each city.

Under the new law, Lyft will just need regular criminal background checks for all its Texas drivers — not the premium fingerprint versions Houston previously required. Lyft will also need to get permits and pay fees to the state.

Up until now, the onus was on local governments to set rules for ridesharing companies. Lyft left Houston in 2014, after the city imposed fingerprinting and threatened drug tests for drivers of ridesharing apps.

Uber, Lyft’s main competitor, also threatened to walk but ended up sticking around after reaching a deal with the city. Last year, Uber and Lyft left Austin after a similar spat with local officials.

Lyft was vocal about its opposition to the 2014 Houston law. But Miller, the Houston Lyft manager, said the real problem with that ordinance was its lack of consistency.

“Working with each [city] individually becomes extremely challenging,” he said. “What we were really looking for was one set of rules.”

On Tuesday, Miller joined a party and orientation for new drivers at White Oak Music Hall, where he handed out “Amps” to new drivers. The gadget creates a unique color light on a driver's dashboard, making it easier for riders to pick out their car in a crowd.

Amp is only one part of Lyft’s push to bring customers and contractors over from competing apps, like Uber. For drivers, there’s an option for in-app tipping, Miller said. And local riders can get $5 off their first ride, even if they used Lyft regularly before the company left Houston.

The company has been plotting its return for a while. In May, a Houston Press reporter encountered a Lyft representative in a parking lot at Intercontinental Airport. The man was there to let Uber drivers know about the comeback — and to see if he could lure any of them to switch over.

Lyft’s return hasn’t come without issues. The company was widely panned Wednesday for a map it put out, which inaccurately reflected Houston-area geography
click to enlarge Wow, who knew Galveston was within Houston city limits? - LYFT
Wow, who knew Galveston was within Houston city limits?
Chelsea Harrison, a spokeswoman for Lyft, said the map was “for fun” and was not meant to accurately reflect Lyft’s boundaries in Houston. She blamed “artistic license” for the mishap.

The new law has also generated its share of controversy. Two Republican state senators tried to use the bill to push their own agenda, by attempting to add a wildly unrelated amendment defining “sex” as “the physical condition of being male or female.” That amendment failed.

Meanwhile, Houston's mayor, Sylvester Turner, sees the law as an affront to local rule. "I am disappointed the Legislature chose to override Houston's successful regulatory framework, which has been in place since 2014," Turner said last month in a statement. "This is another example of the legislature circumventing local control to allow corporations to profit at the expense of public safety."
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Stephen Paulsen is a journalist and native Houstonian. He writes about crime, food, drugs, urban planning and extremists of all kinds. He covers local news for Houston Press and cannabis policy for Leafly.