Uber’s fast growth brings praise, controversy

Popular transportation network claims to have 1,000 drivers in Dayton.

If you frequent any of the area’s bars and restaurants, chances are you’ll be rubbing elbows with someone who will pull out their smartphone and hail an Uber driver when it’s time to go home.

The popular transportation network — which claims to have 1,000 drivers working the Dayton area — has proven to be a hit with the public thanks to its fast response time, reasonable rates and easy-to-use app.

But Uber also has drawn the ire of the heavily regulated taxi industry and cities such as Dayton, which want to keep close tabs on its drivers. Others have called into question the thoroughness of Uber’s background checks.

Meanwhile, the state legislature is considering a bill that would provide consistent insurance coverage for Uber drivers, who work as independent contractors for the giant global company based in San Francisco.

“Technology disrupts, absolutely, but the reality is that it’s disrupting because it is providing a better consumer experience at a lower cost,” said state Rep. Mike Duffey, R-Worthington, a co-sponsor of House Bill 237.

“Uber and other TNCs (transportation network companies) are clearly driving down the price of quick runs and the consumer experience is very friendly because people turn on the app, they see it’s 10 minutes away. They click and it’s reliable.”

Uber debuted in Dayton in August 2014. The company wouldn’t provide exact ridership statistics, but said “tens of thousands” of trips have been completed.

Casey Verkamp, general manger of Uber Dayton and based in Columbus, says the platform’s growth locally “has been very impressive.”

“It nears Uber’s growth in most cities we launch in,” she said.

Uber driver Scott Burnam, who lives in Oakwood and works as vice president of student affairs at Edison Community College in Piqua, is one of the many part-timer drivers who pick up fares to supplement his family’s income. He said he’s made as much as $350 in a week, working 20 hours, and as little as $30 in four hours.

Burnam’s busiest runs are from the University of Dayton to the downtown Oregon District.

“I think there’s far more benefit to be gained having Uber in a city than not,” Burnam said. “You have the drunk driving issue, the tourism trade. Nothing against the taxis, but if you need one at midnight Saturday you could wait one to two hours.”

How it works

Uber points out that it is a technology platform that connects riders with drivers, who both have to register. All drivers and riders have profiles, and they are able to rate each other on a scale of 1 to 5.

“If someone’s rating isn’t up to our standards, we definitely will either warn or remove partners or riders from the system,” said Verkamp.

Riders have their credit card information on file, so no cash is exchanged (although drivers accept tips). When a ride is requested, the nearest available driver hears a “ping” on their smartphone. If they accept, the rider is given the name of the driver, type of vehicle, license plate number and a photo of the driver.

Those driving for Uber must have a clean vehicle that is a 2006 model or newer, with four doors. They also need to provide a valid driver’s license and registration and proof of insurance.

Uber’s background check includes a Social Security trace and a motor vehicle records check. It also includes a sex offender registry and criminal records check. Drivers are not accepted onto the platform if they have been found guilty of driving under the influence.

All trips are tracked by GPS.

Rates in Dayton, which can change during heavy usage, are $1.20 a mile and 18 cents a minute. There’s also a $2 base fare and $1.85 safe rider fee.

A ride from The Greene to UD costs about $12 for one-to-four riders. Four riders is the maximum amount an Uber driver can transport in the area. Bigger markets have an Uber XL option, which accommodates up to six passengers.

A nationwide Uber survey conducted in December found that drivers make an average of $19 per hour. Burnam, who drives a 2014 Volkswagen Jetta, said that’s not the case in Dayton.

“That’s a little misleading,” he said. “On a good day you may gross $20 an hour. By the time you take Uber’s cut out, and the fees, and taking care of gas and maintenance, I think my net, at its best, is $12 or $13 an hour, which for the convenience and flexibility is pretty good.”

Uber spokesperson Lauren Altmin said drivers, who work only when they want to, keep 80 percent of all fares.

Drunk drivers

A study conducted by Temple University found that cities where Uber operates experience up to 5.6 percent fewer drunk driving deaths than cities without access to ridesharing. In addition, Uber is partnering with Mothers Against Drunk Drivers to raise awareness of the nationwide problem.

More than 330 cities in the United States have the service, which recently expanded to Las Vegas.

The peak time for Uber business is after midnight, when bars are closing.

“It creates a safe, reliable, cheap option for people,” said Jason Boston, a Miami Twp. resident who drives full-time for Uber, mostly in Cincinnati. “I think it has a positive effect on all types of nightlife. People can go out without any concern about how they’re going to get home or who’s going to be the designated driver.”

Nick Giallombardo, owner of Geez Grill & Pub in Washington Twp., says Uber’s speed is its top asset.

“The fault with the taxis is how long it takes,” he said. “With Uber, they have people sitting on their phone waiting for the call and they jump all over it.

“We’ve called taxis for people and they’re like ‘an hour and 15 minutes.’ That’s a problem.”

Burnam said a typical fare from the Oregon District to UD is $5 or $6, which can be split between riders.

“I like college students, so for me the UD and Wright State traffic and the drunk kids, it’s not hateful,” he said. “I’d much rather they call us than get stupid. Frankly, I wish when I was in college we had Uber.”

Mickey Ludlow, an exercise physiology major at UD, has used Uber to go downtown.

“They come and pick you up from your house, in a few minutes,” Ludlow said. “You don’t have to deal with taxi companies. You can order right on your phone, which is really convenient.”

At the Statehouse

Duffey’s bill to close insurance loopholes for Uber drivers passed the Ohio House 95-0 and has been through three committee hearings in the Senate.

The taxicab lobby wants to add several amendments, including one that would require Uber drivers to purchase vendor’s licenses and pay sales tax.

“All we’re asking for is a level playing field and let the market decide,” said Morgan Kauffman, owner of Yellow Cab Columbus. “It shouldn’t be up to the legislature to decide who’s a winner and loser in this industry.”

Kauffman also wants Uber cars to be clearly identified (they are unmarked in Ohio) and thinks all drivers should undergo strict background checks that include fingerprinting.

There have been instances of crime in Uber vehicles — against drivers and passengers.

Boston said he’s “never felt unsafe” while working in his Honda Odyssey van.

“Occasionally you’ll get somebody who’s a little strange, but we’re under no obligation to take any trip that we choose not to,” he said.

Zach Schiller of Policy Matters Ohio testified in committee earlier this week. He wants Uber to comply with Ohio’s $8.10-an-hour minimum wage and pay sales tax. He also says cities should have the final say in regulating Uber.

“While we applaud the adoption of new technology allowing for new services, it needs to be done in a way that’s most beneficial to the public,” Schiller said. “Whether it’s the preservation of whistleblower protection or making sure the sales tax is properly collected, there are public interests at stake that we need to carefully consider.”

Boston, who has been driver for Uber for 15 months, agrees.

“I think it should be left up to the individual municipalities,” he said. “Cincinnati and Dayton have had very little restriction, where the city of Columbus is very restrictive. They make you go through the taxi commission and they make you get a license and ID badge that you have to display. If you’re found without these things you’re fined heavily.”

Dayton’s stance

Uber pays an annual fee of $8,500 to operate in the city of Dayton, including the airport. No Uber drivers, though, have registered with the city or submitted to its background check procedures, which includes fingerprinting.

Terry Slaybaugh, director of Dayton International Airport, hopes the city can work out a deal with Uber because he sees value in the service, which he has used.

“If your airport is going to be successful and be appealing to the people we want to attract to our market, we have to be flexible and be able to work with things like Uber and Lyft,” Slaybaugh said. “We have to react to what people want and are doing.”

Burnam said he has had no problems working in Dayton, partly because there’s no way to readily identify an Uber vehicle. Uber says Dayton is its fourth-largest Ohio market.

“It used to be that we weren’t allowed to go wait for fares at the airport because it’s Dayton city property, and to idle on city property waiting for rides you had to have a medallion that taxi drivers paid thousands of dollars for, but they realized there’s no way to regulate this,” Burnam said. “I could be someone’s brother picking them up, so that’s kind of gone away.”

According to the city, there are 14 licensed taxicab companies in Dayton and about 80 vehicles/drivers.

Slaybaugh said letting Uber operate unchecked eventually could compromise federal grants for the airport. Plus, it costs the city money.

“We want them to come into the fold like all our other private business partners,” he said. “We do business with over 60 different companies at the airport. We have agreements with all of them and they comply with our rules and regulations.

“We have not been heavy-handed about this yet. … At some point that’s probably going to have to happen.”

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