Josh Massey was an early user of Uber and Lyft when the ridesharing companies first started shaking up the transportation scene a few years ago. He was living in Chicago at the time and loved the convenience of being able to summon a ride at the press of a button. A frequent passenger, he even befriended some of his favorite drivers.
“[Uber and Lyft] were revolutionary in helping me with my business,” says Massey, who owns a technology-focused recruiting and staffing company. “There was nothing more handy in the winter of Chicago than to get door-to-door, easy, seamless service.”
Massey, a UW-Madison graduate, watched with interest the evolution of what has come to be known as transportation network companies (TNCs). These are broadly defined as car services that connect passengers, via website and phone apps, with drivers who provide rides in their own vehicles.
Massey’s background in staffing made him particularly interested in the TNC employment model, which has been controversial for, among other things, blurring the line between independent contractor and traditional worker. But he says the model, as followed by such companies as Uber and Lyft, is flawed. “They only care about being a tech platform, versus being an employer,” Massey says. “I wanted to solve that problem.”
His solution is Alfred, a new ridesharing company that launched in Madison in November. It’s a hybrid concept — Massey describes it as a combination of Uber, a limousine service and a personal concierge. Massey is operating Alfred under a new Wisconsin law that exempts TNCs from municipal taxicab regulations. Passed in 2015 to allow the expansion of companies like Uber and Lyft, Alfred is the first local business to take advantage of the newly deregulated industry. Massey is also looking into expanding Alfred into different cities — namely Milwaukee and other Big 10 school cities.
When asked if Alfred’s business model falls under the definition of a transportation network company, Madison Assistant City Attorney Adriana Peguero said she hadn’t heard of the new company, but she believes it would be fall under state statute, not the city’s taxicab ordinance.
“The preemption in the statute is pretty clear; there’s not a lot of room for ambiguity,” she says. The only uncertainty is Alfred’s hybrid approach of using drivers’ personal vehicles as well as owning a fleet of cars. “Once you get into a fleet, it gets a little more ambiguous,” she says. “If the city took the opinion that [Alfred] is a taxicab company, then we could presumably fight them for operating as an unlicensed taxicab company.”
The biggest difference between Alfred and Uber is that Alfred hires only “professional” drivers — people who have gone through a driving exam. Both companies also require background checks. Though Alfred employs a mix of full-time and contract workers, the idea is to attract employees who are interested in driving as a career rather than driving as a side job to earn extra money. “It adds another layer of qualification,” Massey says.
Alfred also aims to provide a fancier vehicle than a traditional taxi or an Uber. The company owns a fleet of high-end “black cars” (think Mercedes-Benz wagons), but drivers can also use their own vehicle if it’s up to snuff. Uber used only high-end vehicles when it launched, but now its standard service is UberX. It’s billed as a lower-cost option, but the range of vehicle quality can vary. Massey says Alfred’s luxury vehicle requirement provides consistency for customers looking for a higher-end experience.
While Uber is useful for summoning a car when you need a ride immediately — like at bartime or after a sporting event — Massey is positioning Alfred to be a more of a “book-ahead” car service (though customers can schedule same-day rides). It’s less nimble than the Uber model, but it has two big benefits: Customers can select a driver based on his or her online profile and develop a relationship with a trusted chauffeur, and drivers have a structured schedule with guaranteed income. The base rate for an Alfred is $109 an hour.
Massey is also working with local hotels, including the Edgewater, to offer Alfred as an option for tourists and travelers looking to explore the city via a “customizable excursion.” He’s also looking to partner with an “affiliate network” of breweries, wineries and restaurants. Blending the industries of transportation and tourism makes Alfred unique, he says. “I feel like it’s a new category of transportation.”