LIVE LOCAL, LIVE SMALL: Navigating the trade economy and safety regulations with Uber

May 31 • FEATURE SIDEBAR, Live Local, NEWS & VIEWSNo Comments on LIVE LOCAL, LIVE SMALL: Navigating the trade economy and safety regulations with Uber

“Are you ladies both getting enough cool air?”

GETTING HOME: Gwenyfar Rohler finally Ubers it and while it wasn’t half bad, she compares it to other forms of transport. Courtesy photo.

GETTING HOME: Gwenyfar Rohler finally Ubers it and while it wasn’t half bad, she compares it to other forms of transport. Courtesy photo.

My friend Allison and I were sitting in the back seat of a tidy Hyundai sedan for my first Uber ride. I described our driver as “looking sketchy” about 10 minutes earlier when Allison showed it to me.

“Can’t we request a woman driver?” I asked.

“I don’t think so, no. But everyone’s profile picture looks bad.”

He turned out to be incredibly friendly, well-groomed, nicely dressed, well-spoken, and retired. I had to admit: It was a sharp contrast to most of my experiences taking taxis in Wilmington wherein beyond grunting a question about where I wanted to go, most drivers ignored me (at best) and certainly didn’t ask if I had enough air conditioning.

“OK,” I mentally conceded looking around the car. “I can see why people might prefer this.”

Last year I experimented with taxi and bus services in Wilmington for encore. The taxi service wasn’t bad; it just prohibitively was expensive and lacking in a fair amount of “mod cons,” shall we say. Nevertheless the drivers were on time and did get me home safely.

It wasn’t my first time taking taxis here, nor was it my last. Since my story ran, dear Editor Lady at encore has dropped some not-so-subtle hints about looking into Uber. Since I don’t have a smartphone I have been able to beg off. Until now.

Enter Allison—one of my friends who is a perpetual bad influence and frequent Uber user. Allison is on a one-woman crusade to mend me as a Luddite. One step she has been kindly, quietly, but repeatedly offering is to introduce me to Uber. Arguments have included a safe way to get home after a party and not worrying about parking at the beach. So, on a sunny morning we sat in the backyard, and Allison showed me the Uber app and how it worked on her phone.

Uber is a ride service that matches drivers with people looking for transportation. It started in 2009 and has been likened to the Airbnb of transport. Much like Airbnb, Uber is confusing for many municipalities to regulate, and the wheels of government have not caught up with the sharing economy. However, there are a variety of issues related to Uber and their model for doing business that are of concern for governments charged with public safety and regulation. Perhaps the most well-known and widely reported protest against Uber was started by Paris taxi drivers in 2014. But that is far from an isolated complaint. Taxi companies carry a significant overhead: a fleet of bonded, insured vehicles, dispatches of some sort (be it a physical office or a dispatch phone turned on during business hours), taxes, city fees, signage, advertising, equipment, etc.

This is what the DMV of North Carolina requires to issue a taxi driver’s license:

– Pass a background check.

– Maintain a clean driving record.

– Pay a taxi-driver licensing fee.

Based on the City of Wilmington website, in order to obtain a taxi permit, limousine permit, or any vehicle for hire, all must:

– Pay the cost of the permit: $15 (fee must be paid at the City of Wilmington Collections Department).

– Pay the cost of fingerprints: $18 (this includes the cost for a federal background check).

– Have a valid I.D.

– Have a letter of introduction from a taxi company.

– Have a completed application.

– Have a picture (will be taken by the permit administer).

– Have drug-screen results (drug screening costs $25-$35).

That’s just for the driver. There are a limited number (155) of taxis permitted to operate in the City of Wilmington. There are plenty of people waiting for one of these permits to become available. Anyone curious about the interesting inter-competition for taxi permits between the cab companies can grab a cab and gab away with the driver during a ride. It is guaranteed to be an enlightening conversation.

One of the ongoing issues with Uber is their refusal to fingerprint their drivers. Subsequent major news stories about drivers who turn out to have previous convictions for violent crimes are off-putting, to say the least. Austin, Texas, had a referendum for voters to decide if Uber and Lyft (another sharing economy ride company) drivers needed to be fingerprinted, and could no longer stop in moving traffic to pick up and discharge passengers. As a result of the vote in favor of finger-printing requirements, Uber suspended business in Austin, and claimed finger-printing took too long and would slow down the rate at which they need to sign up new drivers. So, apparently, they have a high turnover of drivers. Obviously, the flexibility of being able to do it if and when you want is part of the allure.

Have a new baby on the way and need some extra cash? Drive for Uber in the months leading up to the birth, then stop when you are no longer sleeping through the night—no need to wrangle about maternity leave.

Nontraditional student back in college with a two-hour break between classes? Turn on the Uber app and drive during those two hours to pick up some extra cash. There are not a many jobs willing to let employees come in for a couple of hours in the middle of the day twice a week.

Uber’s response to the situation in Austin seems bizarre from a business standpoint. The amount of negative publicity in the media about drivers who passed the screening process and shouldn’t have seems like it would tip the scales for the company to institute finger-printing—or press them to answer questions surrounding liability of their drivers.

I had to get finger-printed to apply for a beer and wine license, and to be frank, serving someone a beer in a well-lit public place does not put me in a position to kidnap them. However, when getting in a car with a stranger, passengers are at their mercy.

On the day Allison and I took Uber, I got home to find another story in the news. This time an Uber driver had prior violent offences from shooting two police officers. Can anyone blame me for feeling squeamish?

I was startled that our Uber drivers talked about people calling Uber to ferry their children across town for them. Another market segment they cited was elderly people going to doctor appointments. After years of life as my father’s chauffeur, that hit home. Both of our drivers were retirees who drove for Uber partly for money, but mostly to get out of the house and meet people. They both drive during daylight hours, and prefer not to deal with drunks and potentially someone vomiting in their cars.

I certainly see the void Uber is filling in this community, but given the incredibly stringent regulations on taxis, it is pretty obvious why a basically unregulated business that operates in direct competition to them gets their backs up. With Uber everything is handled electronically, so the drivers don’t carry cash and don’t have to worry about someone trying to rob them of their earnings or bolting without paying.

I was startled in Cincinnati by a cab driver who kept eyeing my soft-sided briefcase with concern before finally asking me point blank if it was stuffed with newspapers. Apparently, he had reoccurring problems with young women who claimed they were leaving their purse with him as a good-faith gesture and they were coming back to pay their tab at the end of a ride … only for him to discover the purse was stuffed with wadded-up newspaper. At least Uber drivers aren’t facing that problem. The pay is guaranteed by the rider’s credit card.

All else aside, how does Uber stack up financially for the consumer? Here’s the break down of our trip by numbers: We took Uber from the Historic District to the far south end of Wrightsville Beach for $13.10. Our return included a stop at Stevens Hardware for a can of polyurethane, then back to our starting location for $15.40. This was not during surge pricing when prices go up; it was the middle of the day during the week. If we had taken a cab, the math would look like this: the $3 meter-drop fee (price of just getting in the cab and moving forward), plus $2.10 per mile would have been $25 each way, before a tip for the driver. However, if we had driven my sweet little ’65 VW bug, we would have spent about $4.50 on gas round trip and about $15 for parking. Our Uber driver on the way back told us he ferries a lot of college kids from Lumina Station, where they park and then call Uber for a $3 ride across the bridge so they don’t have to pay for parking.

There are definite pluses to Uber operating in Wilmington (among them, another option rather than driving home drunk from a bar or party). It is great people are finding a way to bring more income home. (Lord knows we could all use some extra money to pay bills.) It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the next few years, especially if we get striker regulations for Airbnb locally. It would seem logical Uber would come under similar scrutiny.

When Allison asked me if I would take Uber again, I was pretty quick to say yes. The experience was lovely, and not worrying about parking was a weight off the mind. So, yes, let’s schedule another beach trip with Uber soon.

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