Petaluma company launches on-demand car service
At a time when ride-booking companies like Uber are shaking up the taxi industry, Petaluma’s Pure Luxury Transportation is launching its own on-demand car service.
Pure Luxury, which has a fleet of more than 130 chauffeured vehicles, this winter began BlinkCar, one of the nation’s first on-demand services to be offered by a traditional limousine company.
The new business has a smartphone app that allows passengers to request and obtain rides within minutes in either a regular or luxury sedan or an SUV. The driver can take the client across town or across the Bay Area, with payment handled via a credit card registered with the app.
What sets BlinkCar apart from other ride-booking services is that its drivers aren’t independent contractors using their private cars but rather trained, company employees driving Pure Luxury’s own vehicles. The sedans and SUVs are fully insured, regularly inspected and cleaned inside and out each day, said Pure Luxury owners Gary and Jennifer Buffo.
BlinkCar offers “all the things you would want” from an on-demand car service, said Jennifer Buffo.
Pure Luxury has 184 employees and operates the 17th largest fleet in the United States, according to Limousine Charter and Tour Magazine. Its vehicles include stretch limos, 12-person executive vans equipped with leather captain chairs and satellite dishes and full-size motor coaches, or buses.
The 24-year-old Petaluma company has grown significantly, opening operations in both Napa Valley and Foster City in the past two years. Its work includes weddings, tours, airport transportation and business events.
The company’s mindset is “we don’t want to lose a customer, ever,” Gary Buffo said.
The Buffos began BlinkCar in Petaluma in December. They plan to expand it next week to Santa Rosa and Sonoma and this spring begin operations in the Napa Valley. They hope that if the business takes off, other car service companies will want to become affiliates and use the app in their cities.
The on-demand business is starting as a growing number of passengers are turning to ride-booking companies whenever they need a lift.
For the taxi and limo industries, “the ride-sharing technology is the biggest change in the last decade,” Gary Buffo said.
Uber and Lyft, both privately held ride-booking companies, began operations in Sonoma County last spring. Uber does business in more than 260 cities around the world and has been valued at $41 billion. Lyft is reportedly in talks seeking another ?$250 million, which would raise its valuation to $2 billion. It operates in 65 U.S. cities.
Already, local taxi drivers say they have lost significant business to drivers of private cars who operate like taxis.
“It’s very scary because I have a house and a mortgage,” said John Myerson, a driver and manager with Golden Taxi who last week made an appeal for help to the Santa Rosa City Council.
Myerson estimated his business has dropped by about $300 a week. Some taxi drivers have seen their income cut in half, he said, and many are getting “squeezed out” by unfair competition.
Around the U.S., a battle is “being played out as we speak in dozens of states and dozens of cities” concerning what regulations will govern the ride-booking companies, said Michael Fogarty, president of the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association. The group includes more than 1,100 transportation companies around the world.
The taxi and limo companies maintain that the ride-booking businesses have an unfair advantage because they aren’t subject to the same level of regulation as traditional transportation companies. Fogarty’s association operates a website, whosdrivingyou.org, which alleges a lack of regulatory oversight and potential safety problems connected to Uber, Lyft and other such companies.
“It doesn’t do the public any good to provide them an inexpensive service if you’re putting them in danger,” said Fogarty, who also is president and CEO of American operations for Tristar Worldwide Chauffeur Services.
The National Limousine Association, of which Gary Buffo is president, last week announced its “Ride Responsibly” campaign, calling for “definitive guidelines and regulatory standards” for the ride-booking companies. In an association press release, Buffo said the campaign came about in response to “the mushrooming number of reports in the media of incidents committed by car service drivers against passengers” of those companies.
Such allegations are strongly disputed by Lyft spokeswoman Chelsea Wilson.
The California Public Utilities Commission has set forth regulations that “maintain the highest level of safety” for passengers and the public, said Wilson.