Ruth Grayson drives for the car service Lyft in Los Angeles. Lyft is a phone app that suggests donations for drivers like Grayson, who provide rides for people up to 60 miles from the point of origin. The company is expanding to Orange County. (Luis Sinco, Los Angeles Times / May 14, 2013)

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Drivers in Newport Beach may soon notice cars adorned with fuzzy, pink mustaches maneuvering among the traffic.

The ride-share service Lyft launches in several Orange County cities Thursday. Providing an alternative to a taxi or a limousine, Lyft drivers use their personal cars — marked with magnetic mustaches — to pick up passengers who request the service using a smartphone app.

Orange County will be the 17th market into which the company has expanded. Lyft launched in San Francisco last year and now serves areas including Los Angeles, Silicon Valley and San Diego.

Its service in Orange County will be available in downtown Huntington Beach, Corona del Mar, Newport Beach, Costa Mesa and Irvine, said director of communications Erin Simpson. The areas of operation may expand after that.

The company's arrival in Orange County coincides with an ongoing debate over ride-sharing services in Los Angeles. Although the city issued cease-and-desist letters in June to Lyft and two similar companies, Sidecar and Uber, which serves Orange County already, the companies said they planned to continue operating because of existing agreements with the California Public Utilities Commission.

In September, the commission approved regulations for their operations if they complied with insurance and safety standards — the first such rules in the country.

Los Angeles City Council members had considered challenging this decision, but as of Wednesday decided not to do so.

Nonetheless, Lyft drivers, who set their own hours, will begin serving Orange County residents and their varied needs. Some people like to use Lyft to connect with public transportation. Others use it to avoid parking or to attend a party in anticipation of having a few alcoholic drinks. People may want to use it to travel to and from Los Angeles, but guidelines limit rides to less than 60 miles.

Simpson said Lyft drivers are outgoing, creative types. Among the "founding drivers" in Orange County, she said, are a chef, music producer and former pro-soccer player.

"You can hop in the front seat with someone, charge your phone and meet someone else from the community who you might not have met before," Simpson said.

Lyft most recently launched last week in Baltimore.