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Atlanta's taxi industry declares war on Uber, Lyft

What's yellow and black, heavily regulated, and green with envy?



The Loring Heights headquarters of Atlanta Checker Cab is a taxi industry time capsule. A glass case inside CEO Rick Hewatt's office holds the cab driver's cap his uncle wore in the 1950s. Over his assistant's desk hangs a photo of Hewatt's grandfather, a former trolley operator and the 67-year-old company's founder. Today, Atlanta Checker Cab owns more than 187 cars. Outside, behind rows of cabs and three garages where cars are washed, painted, and maintained, there's a rusted early model of the tanker-like taxi that once rolled on Atlanta's streets. For the last 50 years, Atlanta Checker Cab has operated out of this location, making it one of the city's oldest taxi companies.

"Three generations have worked here and a fourth on its way," Hewatt, 55, says as his son Calvin processes payments in an adjacent office building and Hewatt's sister Kathy Shamblen works as an accounts receivable clerk in a room lined with servers, a backup generator, and computer terminals. "My grandfather founded it, my dad grew it, now I'm just trying to maintain it."

Maintaining a taxi company in Atlanta has become increasingly difficult. For the past two years, Hewatt and his colleagues have watched startup car service Uber, and more recently Uber's pink-mustachioed competitor Lyft, aggressively muscle their way into Atlanta's ground transportation industry, gobbling up taxi business in the process.

There was a time when, if you needed a lift home from the bar, to the doctor's office, or to the airport, your only private option was a cab company. Now you can just open a free app on your phone and instantly find a ride from a handful of companies. And not just any ride, but a clean, even fancy, and quick-to-arrive ride for roughly the same price as a cab.

Atlanta's taxicab industry has been watching from the sidelines, waiting for the companies with the silly names but alarmingly similar business models to be forced to comply with the same regulations they're legally required to follow.

A turf war between cabs and the flashy transportation upstarts has erupted in cities across the United States, including Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., New York, and, now, Atlanta. The taxicab industry is sick of the car services poaching its business, not paying the fees, and driving around town picking up fares without any oversight. These companies are to taxicabs what blogs were to newspapers, digital cameras to film, and Airbnb to hotel chains. Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick has built his career on creating such disruptive business ventures.

In response, Hewatt and his colleagues have started a behind-the-scenes push to do what other cities across the country have done: regulate companies that act like taxis but swear up and down they're not. Uber and Lyft have hired high-powered lobbyists to defend their interests at City Hall and under the Gold Dome. So have the taxicab and limo executives. They've also found an influential state lawmaker who sees the merits of their arguments. If the Old Guard gets their way, the technology companies might have to follow some set of rules. If it doesn't, the checker cabs and limos could face an uncertain future.

When Angela Walker quit her corporate marketing gig in Milwaukee and moved to Atlanta with her son nearly two years ago, she didn't have a car. The Sandy Springs resident used to take MARTA from her home in North Fulton to the novelty shop she owns in Little Five Points during the week. On weekends, she'd rent a car to get around.

"I saw cars with empty seats," Walker says, remembering those trips to and from work. "I thought, 'I could have used a lift' many times. Two buses and two trains from Sandy Springs to here, and I'd still have to walk from Inman Park. It was a minute. But that's when I fell in love with this concept. A convenient ride and you didn't have to pay an arm, leg, and a lung. What's not to like?"

Now with a car of her own and wanting to supplement her income, she discovered Lyft on Craigslist late last summer and became one of the "peer to peer ride-sharing" company's first metro Atlanta drivers. She shuttles passengers in her Pontiac Vibe — the "Fly Mobile" — decked out with pink LED lights that coordinate with the neon pink mustache Lyft's drivers are required to display on the grills of their cars. Like other Lyft drivers, she invites passengers to sit shotgun and get to know her. When they leave she hands them a bag of treats including a discount code and a free sample of her homemade skin cream.

"You get to be your own personality, your own brand and not get penalized for it," she says. "I couldn't do this in my corporate job."

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