Refusing to fight Lyft and Uber, Pittsburgh’s zTrip carves out market.

Refusing to fight Lyft and Uber, Pittsburgh’s zTrip carves out market.

Jamie Campolongo is trying to close the gap between 11 seconds and two seconds.

That nine-second difference is an eternity in today’s world when potential customers are in a hurry to get a ride.

That was an unshakable fact that Mr. Campolongo, who has been president of Pittsburgh Transportation Group for 25 years, realized three years ago — not long after Uber and Lyft dramatically rolled into Pittsburgh.

The San Francisco-based ride-hailing apps suddenly could offer anyone a ride within minutes, which eroded taxi cabs’ market share while flouting state regulations that had granted Yellow Cab of Pittsburgh monopolistic authority.

In response, Mr. Campolongo did something remarkable for an industry infuriated by the newcomers’ audacity: He joined forces with the ride-hailing companies to legalize their operations.

“We knew Uber was going to get what they wanted,” Mr. Campolongo said in a recent interview in his office in Chateau. Instead of fighting his new rivals, “What we said was: How about a ‘me, too?’”

The result was passage of legislation, signed by the governor last year, that amended Pennsylvania transportation rules to permit ride-hailing companies. At the same time, the taxi company underwent a brand overhaul, developing its own mobile app and trading in the mustard-yellow, checkered boxy cabs for silver Toyotas, Hyundais, Kias and Dodges.

The old and stale Yellow Cab of Pittsburgh became hip and sleek zTrip — a ride-hail company informed by a 100 years of experience, but embracing a digital reality.

In some ways, zTrip is a mix of both. The company still owns a fleet, which today totals about 290 cars that can be leased on a daily, weekly or weekend basis by drivers. Though drivers pay for leases, the company covers insurance costs and maintenance.

An additional 100 to 150 people drive for the company using their own vehicles under the YellowZ banner, not unlike Uber and Lyft drivers. That group is designed to grow and shrink with demand.

The move to shift the business strategy appears to have paid off. Though he declined to provide specifics, Mr. Campolongo held up a chart showing sales up 30 percent from last year and fully recovering from declines when Uber and Lyft moved in.

In addition, trip completions are way up and complaints are way down. The silver zTrip cars can now be spotted across the city and are ubiquitous at major events. Mr. Campolongo plans to increase the fleet by 21 percent next year.

In the process, zTrip has had to work a little harder, and in different ways, to manage its workforce.

About half of drivers for zTrip today were with the company three years ago — meaning about half are new to working for a cab company. The company modified driver training to put more weight on customer service and small business management tips now that they are competing against other companies.

Tim Knight got the keys to his first zTrip vehicle in September 2016. He had never driven for a taxi company, but he did have experience in customer service and sales.

It took him less than a month to get a strategy sorted out: He would drive from 5 a.m. to 11 a.m., take a break from 11 a.m. until 2 p.m., then go back out for afternoon rush hour.

“Some of it was being in the right place in the right time,” he acknowledged.

Mr. Knight had no problem establishing a base of customers who would reach out to him for a ride. Soon enough, he was asked to be a mentor to other drivers. In April, he was hired on as the market expansion manager — a full-time position that brings on new zTrip drivers and serves as their liaison with the company.

Now that the job comes with the ease of technology and a cooler brand, recruiting is easier.

“Taxi cab drivers used to be the job of last resort,” Mr. Campolongo said. While Yellow Cab of Pittsburgh struggled with a shortage of cab drivers, zTrip can’t expand its fleet quick enough. “We have probably 85 people backlogged, waiting to get into training.”

On the customer side, Mr. Campolongo is candid about the issues that riders have had with taxi cabs over the years — problems that aided the rise of ride-hailing.

Users of ride-hail apps often cite horror stories of being stranded places or missing flights because taxi cabs failed to show. Stereotypes of cabs as musty, and even dangerous, pervaded the industry.

With the mobile app, Mr. Campolongo claims, better service has accompanied the cleaner image. 

“I think people generally feel a little more comfortable in a taxi cab, but they were really uncomfortable with the service levels and response time,” he said. “Now that we’ve closed the gap in technology and comfort and the type of car we’re in, people are coming back.”

He read down a list of partnerships that zTrip, with deep roots and long-standing partnerships with other Pittsburgh businesses, has developed. The company even provides between 70 and 80 rides a day for students from nine local school districts and some private schools.

In many cities, the cab industry resisted ride-hailing and any change in regulations. The national taxi cab trade association has waged an ongoing campaign called “Who’s Driving You” that tallies criminal incidents allegedly involving Uber and Lyft drivers and asks for people to submit complaints.

Mike Pinckard, president of the 1,100-member Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association, noted companies were put in a tough position by being forced to play by the rules while Uber and Lyft broke them.

But now that many states are adopting regulations governing ride-hailing, a small number of the taxi group’s more than 1,000 members are reaching out to capture that market.

Mr. Pinckard’s own company, Phoenix, Ariz.-based Total Transit, launched a ride-hailing alternative in January 2016 that currently gives 200,000 trips per month — or about 60 percent of the number of rides formerly performed by traditional taxis there.

“We believe that all of the key components are there to compete and win,” he said.

The challenge can be balancing the swelling demand for rides and ensuring drivers get enough trips to make money. In Pittsburgh, Mr. Campolongo said he is aiming to increase the zTrip fleet to 350 cars in 2018.

Cab drivers traditionally relied on steady trips to and from the airport, sometimes neglecting other areas

While those rides could bring in $35 and take an hour round-trip, the technology now gives drivers more pings throughout the region. Shorter rides can add up and usually mean more money for drivers, Mr. Campolongo said.

That’s where the nine-second gap comes in. The new version of zTrip’s app will send ride requests directly to drivers, without first sending the request through a central dispatch system.

Customers using the app to call a ride have no patience for even that brief delay.

“Before our technology can even tell them how long the ride will take to get there, they cancel,” Mr. Campolongo said. “There’s no patience. You’re off to the competitor.”

“Now, if we could just do something about that 2-star rating” on Google Reviews, he said with a laugh.

Daniel Moore:, 412-263-2743 and Twitter @PGdanielmoore.

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A Baltimore taxi company now has a ride-hailing app.

A Baltimore taxi company now has a ride-hailing app.

In Baltimore, taxis are getting into the ride-hailing app game.

Transdev, the international company that owns Yellow Checker Cab of Baltimore, is launching its zTrip app in the city on Thursday.

The app, which is available for iOS and Android, was beta tested by the company in Kansas City over the last year. By the spring, the company expects to have it available in 18 cities, said Bill George, president of the taxicab business in Transdev’s On Demand Division.

In Baltimore, the app has been rolling in soft-launch mode this week, with about 200 rides ordered between Tuesday and Wednesday. “Drivers are thrilled with it,” George said.

A look at the zTrip app.

A look at the zTrip app. (Courtesy image)

At this point, it’s obvious that the cab service is entering the same app space where services like Uber and Lyft have made big inroads in recent years. After entering in Baltimore, the ridesharing services officially got on the books in Maryland last year with a new — and separate from taxi — regulatory framework adopted by the state legislature. This week, Lyft announced an expansion into Annapolis and Baltimore surburbs, and Uber added more Maryland cities last October.

Ridesharing companies haven’t been shy about their intentions to disrupt the taxi industry in general, with its entrenched regulations, and the many individual difficulties getting a ride we’ve had over the years. It would be easy to look at the app as an attempt to catch up by imitation. But given all the flack taxi companies take and the fact that we started the New Year with word of an $1,100 Uber ride on New Year’s Eve, it’s only fair to hear George out.

Riders, he said, “can still call for a cab, hail a cab, text for one or order on our website. This is just another way to order the vehicle.”

Like ridesharing, zTrip has driver tracking and a ratings system, and allows riders to pay with a credit card through the app (though cash is still an option). Transdev also introduced a new computer dispatch system in Baltimore that’s syncing with the app and other forms of ordering. But George said zTrip has a couple of features that are designed to make it distinct. For one, there is no surge pricing. “The price is the same, 24/7,” George said. Riders can also book rides in advance. A button on the app also provides access to live customer service, and another is coming soon to request ADA compliance.

George also pointed to the drivers themselves as an asset. They’re professional, and they’re driving regulated vehicles, he said. Along with the dispatch system, the fact that the drivers may know a shortcut also shortens ride times. We asked if Transdev has lost drivers to the ridesharing companies, who offer flexibility as an independent contractor.

“When the app services have opened up, there was an initial departing of some drivers. Typically most of them come back,” he said.

Transdev is planning a launch party for the app from 6-9 p.m. tonight at Phillips in the Inner Harbor. They company says it will donate to the Kennedy Krieger Institute as part of the launch.

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Most Kansas City taxis to operate like Uber and Lyft in wake of new state law.

Most Kansas City taxis to operate like Uber and Lyft in wake of new state law.

April 25, 2017 08:09 PM

Updated April 25, 2017 08:10 PM

Baltimore Gets On-Demand Ride Alternative to Uber, Lyft.

Baltimore Gets On-Demand Ride Alternative to Uber, Lyft.

Baltimore residents who prefer to hail a ride with a mobile app now have an alternative to Uber or Lyft: zTrip.

Transdev, the company that owns Yellow Checker Cab of Baltimore, launched the app yesterday for iOS and Android, Baltimore reported. The app is already being used for cabs in Kansas City and Denver, and will soon be available in as many as 18 U.S. cities.

zTrip is among a lineup of ride-hailing apps released by local governments or taxi companies to help traditional yellow cabs compete with the likes of Uber. Cities including San Francisco, Chicago and Los Angeles have all launched ride-hailing apps. When Washington, D.C., launched its app last year, the city mandated that every cab have the new app turned on while on duty.

Operating similar to other popular ride-hailing apps, zTrip has a sleek interface that lets users see nearby drivers and request a taxi or black car. It also has a driver rating system and allows riders to pay and tip with a credit card through the app (although cash is also still accepted).

There are a couple key differences, however, that riders may find appealing: no surge pricing and the ability to book a ride in advance. The apps will also soon have a button riders can hit to request ADA compliance. Accessibility has been an issue for Uber and Lyft in the past. In summer 2014, three mobility-impaired plaintiffs from Texas claimed that Uber and Lyft violated the Americans With Disabilities Act by failing to provide a way for wheelchair users to take advantage of their services.

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Austin Yellow Cab gets new app to hail a ride.

Austin Yellow Cab gets new app to hail a ride.

Yellow Cab Austin, its business battered by new competition from ridesharing companies, is adding a new app to hail cabs — and it strays from the term “cab” in this rideshare-loving environment.

The company announced Thursday that it will begin using the ZTrip app for passengers to book rides. Yellow Cab already has an app, Hail-a-Cab, that does this. In a statement announcing the launch of the company’s ZTrip app, the company said it would keep Hail-a-Cab operational while trying to transition customers to the new app.

The new Yellow Cab ZTrip service has been in development for months, according to John Bouloubasis, president of Texas Taxi Inc., the parent company of Yellow Cab Austin and other Texas Yellow Cab franchises in San Antonio, Houston, Galveston and Pasadena.

“We’ve been talking about it for a while,” he said. “We were looking for another app that’s a national brand, and they have the tech support to take this to the next level.”

ZTrip, as an app, has already been operating in Austin since March. That’s because ZTrip is not its own ridesharing or taxi service. Rather, it is a mobile software platform developed by Paris-based TransDev International that traditional for-hire ground transportation services contract with to add app-based ride-hailing services to their offerings. ZTrip has already partnered with local taxi companies in PittsburghKansas CityBaltimoreOrlando, TampaDenver and Phoenix. In Pittsburgh, Yellow Cab announced it’s going so far as to change its name from Yellow Cab of Pittsburgh to ZTrip Taxi.

In March, ZTrip’s app launched in Austin in partnership with the owner of the local ExecuCar and SuperShuttle franchises. That company obtained a transportation network company operating authority, the legal instrument that allows Uber-style ridesharing services in the city, from the city of Austin. Despite obtaining this authority, the ExecuCar/SuperShuttle and ZTrip partnership operates more like a traditional taxicab company, with fully-liveried company cars ferrying fares from A to B.

But Yellow Cab will not be applying for a TNC operating authority, according to Bouloubasis. Rather, the ZTrip app will just be another way a user can hail a cab.

“They are going to be operating as taxicabs,” said Bouloubasis. “It will put passengers with licensed, vetted taxicabs.”

Bouloubasis said the company plans to add ZTrip booking to its subsidiaries in San Antonio, Houston, Galveston and Pasadena.

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