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Uber ridesharing service off to great start in GR

There is a slight concern about having enough drivers to meet the demand.

August 15, 2014
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(As seen on WZZM TV 13) Uber, the mobile-app-based personal driving service that rolled out in Grand Rapids three weeks ago, is off to a great start in the city.

“We’ve had a really strong response in Grand Rapids that has actually exceeded our expectations,” said Mike White, Uber’s general manager of Michigan.

White said the company does not provide ridership numbers or the number of drivers partnering with the service, but said ridership has been strong and growing.

“Grand Rapids has been off to a stronger start than other comparably sized cities,” he said.

Uber driver Liz Stegman said she drove 31 customers during the first weekend Uber was available in Grand Rapids.

“I was driving during the evening for all of those days, which totaled about 18 hours including down time,” she said.

Riders were offered free Uber rides for two weeks, which may account for the strong start, but White said he doesn’t expect ridership to decrease in the coming weeks now that passengers have to pay for rides.

“Initially what happens in every market is we give riders a chance to try out the service and get an experience. … What we have seen is the demand has actually continued and accelerated, even since ending the free period,” he said. “It is not that uncommon because once riders get a chance to experience how convenient and easy it is to get a ride through Uber and how that compares to other transportation options in the city, they tend to get hooked, and I think what we’ve seen is that happening in Grand Rapids, as well.”

If anything, White is concerned that the service needs more drivers in Grand Rapids to meet the demand.

“We don’t have enough drivers,” he said. “The demand has been very strong. We are seeing a shortage right now in the number of partners we have using the system to keep up with that demand.”

Drivers apply online and submit to a criminal background check and a driving record check. They are also required to have a car that is 10 years old or less and seats four passengers. White said cars undergo a visual inspection.

Eventually, Uber will look to partner with local maintenance shops to perform the necessary vehicle inspections.

“That is how we’ve done it in other cities where we have a little more tenure, like Detroit and Ann Arbor,” he explained. “We don’t have that worked out yet in Grand Rapids, but that is our intent.”

The service is still getting some pushback from taxi companies and a few national associations, including the Property Casualty Insurers Association of America, which question the safety Uber provides in comparison to taxi services; they also say the lack of licensing and other fees allow the company to compete unfairly.

The city of Grand Rapids issued a statement last week addressing the issues.

“We are not currently interested in licensing and regulating Uber drivers,” said Grand Rapids Mayor George Heartwell.

“We are excited that the city of GR has joined other Michigan cities to take a progressive approach to new transportation options like Uber,” White said in response to the city’s decision.

Instead of instituting regulations on Uber drivers, Darlene O’Neal, Grand Rapids city clerk, said she would be “gathering input from stakeholders and will confer with other cities in Michigan to determine whether the city’s taxicab regulations should be revised.”

“Like many industries, the taxicab business is not the same as it was 10 or 20 years ago,” O’Neal said. “If it is time for us to change our regulatory scheme, it will be done thoughtfully and comprehensively.”

The city seems to still be encouraging taxi cab ridership over Uber usage.

“O’Neal urges individuals to look for a taxicab license vehicle decal, and a taxicab driver’s identification card if they want to be sure the vehicle and driver meet the City’s safety standards,” the statement reads.

White emphasized Uber’s safety, saying the service meets Grand Rapids’ insurance requirements and drivers undergo criminal background checks.

“I can speak confidently that there is not an insurance gap for drivers or riders using our platform,” he said. “Any time a rider is taking a ride that is coordinated through the Uber system, they are covered by a $1 million commercial liability insurance — which is three times the requirement, by the way, for Grand Rapids taxis, which is $300,000. That insurance does meet the requirements of Michigan’s Personal Injury Protection program, under the Michigan no fault coverage insurance.”

“I’m not sure why people think it’s any less safe than getting into a cab,” Stegman added. “Uber drivers have to pass a background check, which includes checking an Uber partner’s driving record. I don’t think because cabs are ‘licensed,’ it makes them any more safe than an Uber driver.”

The service also allows passengers and drivers to rate their experience, helping to ensure quality standards.

With the free period up, drivers and riders alike are hoping the service continues to see a positive response.

“I really hope Uber takes hold in Grand Rapids,” Stegman said. “Now that the free ride period is over, we’ll see if Grand Rapids residents are as willing to use Uber when it’s not free. The demand has to be there for Uber drivers to want to continue to drive. And vice versa: There have to be drivers available to meet the demand of riders.”

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