By day, Jimmy Lucia is an actor. By night, he roams the streets of Los Angeles as BatLyft.
Cruising in his blue 2013 Kia Rio hatchback, Batman-masked Lucia picks up strangers and takes them wherever they want to go. On a Friday or Saturday night, Lucia will transport as many as 60 people.
But while Lucia's a nice guy, he doesn't give them a lift for free. He is one of hundreds of actors, musicians and filmmakers who are making extra cash with their cars by hooking up as drivers with ride-sharing firm Lyft.
"Everybody has a survival job, and some people, like me, are lucky to have a 'thrival' job — I can thrive in this job while I pursue my dreams," Lucia said.
The ride-sharing service is only a year old but already has attracted thousands of customers a week who get around the city in rides by Lyft drivers — usually at a lower price than they would pay for a taxicab. Lyft uses smartphone apps to connect ride-needy users with car-ready drivers.
Lyft and rivals Sidecar and Uber Technologies Inc., which operates the Uber and uberX services, are now in a handful of major cities. The mini-economy they have created is disrupting the established business model of taxicab drivers, who want local officials to crack down on the burgeoning operations.
About 300 cabbies drove in circles around Los Angeles City Hall for about 15 minutes Tuesday morning honking in protest over what they called "high-tech bandit cabs."
Lyft, Sidecar and Uber ignored an order Monday from the city's Transportation Department to cease operating because they were violating city ordinances by not having permits or licenses. The firms said they had agreements to operate from the California Public Utilities Commission.
William Rouse, general manager of L.A. Yellow Cab, said he's outraged about the new companies, especially when they advertise themselves as being 20% cheaper than regular cabs.
Rouse, who also is president of the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Assn., said Lyft, Sidecar and Uber are able to offer lower fares than conventional taxis because they don't comply with the same regulations that his industry does and their drivers don't have taxicab licenses.
"We spend a lot of money to comply with regulation," he said. "We jump through a lot of hoops. So yes, if a company doesn't have to spend any money complying with regulation, then of course it gives them an unfair competitive advantage."
Rouse also complained about the lack of inspections and background checks performed by ride-sharing companies on their drivers and their drivers' cars. And he questioned the adequacy of insurance.
"This is no safer than hitchhiking," Rouse said. "People don't hitchhike anymore because hitchhiking is dangerous. If you take one of these services, you're essentially doing the same thing as hitchhiking."
Lyft, Uber and Sidecar said they indeed comply with regulations, screen drivers through background checks and make sure that both their drivers and riders are safe. Lyft, for instance, said it has $1-million liability insurance coverage for each incident; drivers also are required to have their own private auto insurance.
The services say they also pre-inspect the drivers' vehicles, which must be a 2000 model or newer for Lyft and Sidecar and a 2006 model or newer for Uber. Lyft said it may begin to require regular vehicle inspections as the service moves forward, and Uber said it conducts more inspections if it receives feedback that an uberX driver's car may not be up to standards.
Lyft driver Lucia said he understood the concerns, but he said many riders are turning to Lyft and other services because they feel safer and more comfortable than they do taking other forms of transportation.
"The most common thing I get asked is if I can be personally requested," Lucia said. "They don't feel like they're in some cab. They feel like I'm their friend who's just continuing the party."
There isn't hard data yet on whether these services could become a permanent fixture or fade away, but they are establishing themselves as viable transportation options, said Lauren Setar, lead transportation analyst for research firm IBISWorld Inc.
Because users need smartphones to request a ride, she said, the services are particularly attractive to young and middle-aged users.
"It's not really using anything that they don't have," she said. "It's using smartphone technology, so it's something that's pretty widely adopted."