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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.

Under those rules, Lyft conducts criminal and sex offender background checks and state Department of Motor Vehicle checks on its drivers, she said. The private vehicles receive yearly inspections and Lyft provides $100,000 of insurance coverage whenever the driver has the Lyft app turned on and $1 million of coverage from the time a ride request is accepted until the passenger is dropped off at the destination.

“We very much stand behind our rigorous safety processes,” Wilson said.

She acknowledged that the state regulations are different for taxis and limos, but she maintained that is because Lyft is different. In that regard, she said, her company provides significant benefits by helping reduce the number of cars on the road, allowing people to get around without owning a vehicle and providing car owners a chance “to earn some extra income when they have time.”

In an email, Uber spokeswoman Laura Zapata didn’t respond to specific criticisms of her company. But she wrote that since May “thousands of residents and visitors in Wine Country have chosen Uber as a safe, reliable option to move around the area and make a living.”

Until January 2014, limo and car service companies like Pure Luxury couldn’t book rides solely by mobile phone in California, Gary Buffo said. But that month, the regulations changed so the drivers no longer needed to carry a paper agreement, or “waybill,” between company and passenger.

The Buffos said they started BlinkCar after hearing from customers who wanted to hire a car on demand. The couple spent three years working with an outside tech company to develop the app.

Now clients “don’t need to call four days in advance to book a car for Thursday night,” Jennifer Buffo said.

Asked about the cost of a ride, Gary Buffo took his smartphone, opened the app and got a BlinkCar estimate to take him from his office to Cucina Paradiso, a restaurant he frequents in downtown Petaluma. The 3.1-mile trip in a standard sedan along Petaluma Boulevard North would cost $17, including gratuity.

Later using the same addresses, the Uber app priced the same ride at between $10 and $14. Lyft’s website gave an estimate of $7. Neither price included gratuity.

Jennifer Buffo questioned the accuracy of the competitors’ estimates. The couple earlier explained that their extra expenses are many, including employee health benefits, a 401(k) program and state workers’ compensation insurance. As well, their vehicles may get as many as six inspections a year from such agencies as the U.S. Department of Transportation, CHP and San Francisco International Airport.

BlinkCar appears to be the first of its kind in the state, said Kevin Illingworth, president of the Greater California Livery Association.

Fogarty of the taxi and limo association noted that one New York City limo service does have its own on-demand app, but that mobile service is specifically branded for that company. In contrast, the Buffos consciously separated BlinkCar from Pure Luxury so that other companies could use it as affiliates.

Mark Crabb, chief sales officer of Sonoma County Tourism, said he expects plenty of tourists and business travelers to use BlinkCar.

Uber and Lyft have shown a demand for such services, he said. And the Buffos are widely known in the local travel industry. Jennifer Buffo sits on the tourism group’s board of directors, and she accompanies county tourism staff to trade shows a few times each year as they work to bring more tour groups here.

“Their drivers are top-notch,” Crabb said of Pure Luxury. He regularly refers top business clients to the company.

Illingworth, who also is owner of Classique Limousines in Orange County, said he and other limo company owners will be watching BlinkCar because of its potential.

As the on-demand business grows, the key will be to supply an adequate number of vehicles to meet the demand, he said. When a client goes on the BlinkCar app, they need to see that a car is available or they likely will turn to another car service.

“If they want a ride, they want it right now,” Illingworth said.

News Researcher Janet Balicki contributed to this story. You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @rdigit

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