Uber seeks to crack into mountain market
Services such as Uber and Lyft use smart phone apps to link drivers and riders. Service users submit credit-card information in advance, so no cash changes hands — at least in theory.
To learn more, go to www.uber.com.
EAGLE COUNTY — Ride-sharing services — most notably Uber and Lyft — have shaken up the transportation business in many of the country’s major cities. But the services’ impact in the mountains has so far been limited. Uber is trying to change that, but faces a number of challenges.
Uber is an app-driven service that combines drivers with passengers, providing rides at rates usually far below those charged by established taxi and limo companies. The company has grown in both size and popularity in the course of a few years, but has drawn complaints about unfair competition.
Uber launched apps for the Vail and Roaring Fork valleys a couple of ski seasons ago. But the service hasn’t caught on, in large part due to a lack of drivers.
Uber representative Jaime Moore stopped by the Vail Daily’s office in Eagle-Vail on a recent weekday. When she pulled up the Vail Valley app, there were no drivers near her location. In contrast, when she pulled up the app for downtown Denver, her phone screen showed more than a half-dozen drivers ready to provide a ride, with a wait time of less than five minutes.
That level of service is a long way off in the resort areas, Moore said.
“These are some of the smallest areas where we have the app,” Moore said. That means there are fewer opportunities for drivers to pick up paying customers.
“A few (drivers) will sign on, but people don’t know it, so drivers sign off,” Moore said. On the customer side, potential riders pull up the app, see no drivers and then stop using the app.
“It’s a real nut to crack up here,” Moore said.
Moore said drivers in Denver can make between $3,000 and $5,000 per month if they work full-time. Most drivers, though, work part-time. As independent agents working through the company, drivers can pick and choose how much they want to drive, or not.
Moore grew up in Glenwood Springs, but has lived in cities since leaving college. She doesn’t own a car, and depends for transportation on ride services and public transit. She said she was a fan of ride-sharing before she went to work for Uber a few years ago.
She touts the company’s requirements for background checks and rider ratings of drivers. Drivers must also have cars less than 10 years old, and those cars are required to have mechanical checks. The company also provides $1 million in commercial insurance for drivers as part of the contract arrangements. In return, drivers keep 80 percent of the fares collected through the app. In theory, no tipping is allowed.
Uber rates are often far lower than those charged by taxi companies. For instance, an app search by Moore showed a fare between $10 and $13 for a ride from West Vail to the EagleBend apartments in Avon.
While Uber has enthusiastic fans, people already in the transportation business generally believe the service isn’t held to the same standards existing companies must meet.
Mechelle Cappel owns Elite Limousine, a company that’s done business in the valley for more than 20 years. Cappel said she thinks Uber may continue to struggle in the mountain resort markets, for several reasons.
“Our valley is so cyclical — it’s seasonal and not conducive (to ride-sharing),” Cappel said. Services such as Uber can’t work the same way they do in cities.
Another challenge Cappel sees is simply the amount of business that’s available. “Even the taxi companies don’t have enough work on an annual basis,” she said.
Cappel also said ride-sharing services aren’t competing in the same regulatory environment. While the Colorado Legislature recently passed a law regulating ride-sharing services, Cappel said those rules aren’t equivalent to those her business complies with, from driver background checks to consistency of rates.
Drivers Must Register
While state regulations may be different, drivers with ride-sharing services do face similar fees and rules at the Eagle County Regional Airport and in the town of Vail.
Eagle County Aviation Manager Greg Phillips said anyone doing commercial transportation at the airport has to register to operate there. Drivers also must carry an electronic tag that tracks the number of trips into and out of the airport, and assesses fees based on those trips.
“We welcome (Uber) drivers,” Phillips said. “But they do have to register.”
The situation is similar in Vail. Vail Police Commander Daric Harvey said anyone working for a ride-sharing service must be licensed through the town, meeting the same requirements as taxi and limo companies. Those drivers can face fines for not meeting that requirements. Drivers who base their business in the town also must have a town business license, Harvey said.
But, Harvey said, “as of now, we have not had any Uber drivers register with us.”