Uber on the Main Line
Uber has arrived, but its speedy ascent hasn’t been without controversy—or angry cabbies.
Photo by Tessa Marie Images
If you’re 63 years old and need some extra cash, it’s a pretty good gig. You already have a car, and you work the early shift, mostly ferrying folks to and from the airport and 30th Street Station. Then that family of four gets in with a pizza, and the mother starts handing out slices.
Hell, no. If that nouveau cigar aficionado can’t light up in Steven Friedrich’s Kia Soul, then Mom isn’t serving dinner to the kids, either. “Most people are respectful and don’t smoke or eat,” Friedrich says. “My car is still in great shape through six months of driving.”
Friedrich is looking for another full-time job. For now, though, the 30-40 hours a week he spends behind the wheel as the 21st-century version of the old-fashioned hack is keeping him fed and occupied. He’s part of the UberX squad, regular guys and gals who use their own vehicles to transport others. The five-year-old San Francisco-based company also has a “Black” service, which provides high-end vehicles and chauffeur-style treatment.
Most people use Uber for more mundane purposes—and that’s where Friedrich comes in. He works primarily in western Delaware County, from 5 to 10 a.m. most days, with occasional weekends. Friedrich gets 80 percent of the fare and serves at the pleasure of the Uber app, which connects riders with drivers in short order, often much more quickly than a taxi can unite with its fare. As you can imagine, the cab companies are just wild about that.
“The most unusual thing for me has been the language used by young ladies,” says Friedrich, who once serenaded a passenger with “Happy Birthday” during a ride. “You get three or four women in their 20s in the car, and I find myself blushing from the language they use.”
Gypsy cab drivers have been around as long as cars, but Friedrich and his associates are no lone wolves. They’re part of an international network that’s met a serious demand with technology and good, old-fashioned internal combustion. Uber has taken the cab concept and made it even more convenient—as if sitting in the back of a car and being ferried to your destination was burdensome to begin with. The clincher is being able to use the phone to request, verify, pay for, and rate a ride. According to Uber spokesman Taylor Bennett, there are 20,000 company drivers in the Philadelphia area, and more than 700,000 residents and visitors have taken rides since October 2014. Uber is available to 77 percent of Pennsylvanians—not bad when you consider that about half the state is populated by wolves and bears. The company asserts that 87 percent of its cars appear within 10 minutes of being called.
It’s not perfect. There are no official regulations for Uber in this state, though a few bills are pending. And the inevitable proliferation of competition—Lyft, Sidecar, Haxi and Summon are already on the scene—could clutter the roads with cars-for-hire and, theoretically, have people hailing soccer moms for rides to the Acme. But as long as people need to make it from here to there, a market will exist.
“In the suburbs, getting a cab can be next to impossible,” says Friedrich. “Uber has helped people get from one place to another.”
When Alex Miller heads into the city from his Malvern home, he usually handles the bulk of the trip by train. That makes sense, since fighting the Schuylkill Expressway is no fun and parking downtown is often cost prohibitive. But once Miller and his crew land at Suburban Station, the drab portion of their journey is over, and it’s time for Uber Black. “We use it to navigate the city,” says the 24-year-old data analyst.
The upscale version of the company’s product offers riders what’s typically a Lincoln Town Car, Cadillac or Mercedes, and a person at the wheel who’s more like a chauffeur. It costs more than UberX— Miller says a 15-block drive in Philadelphia can run about $18—but it makes an impression. “It adds to the night out,” says Miller. “When you pull up to the bar in an Escalade and there’s a line out front, when the driver gets out and opens the door—even though everybody knows it’s an Uber—it’s still cool.”
Renting a limo sounds fun. But since most 20-somethings aren’t interested in dropping a few hundred bucks, Black offers a fine alternative. The cars are upscale models, and the drivers are vetted closely. When you order one, you see the name and a photograph of the person
behind the wheel on the app, along with the type of car. “If you want to roll up to the club in a $200,000 Mercedes, you can,” Miller says.
Bennett insists that a variety of folks are using Uber, pointing out that his company has relationships with senior centers and over-50 communities. But there’s no denying that millennials are particularly fond of it, due mostly to the iPhone/Android component that allows for easy ordering. It’s almost counterintuitive that someone would prefer a stranger’s car to a PUC-registered vehicle decorated with a company’s logo and (one would expect) the security of knowing that if something happens, there’s direct recourse available. But, in Uber’s case, it’s about the 21st-century trappings of the riding experience.
In all but the most remote areas, an Uber driver can be at a location in 15 or fewer minutes. Cabs struggle with that window—and there’s also the stereotype that a taxi driver might choose a route that maximizes the final fare. That doesn’t happen with Uber. Directions are sent straight to the driver’s phone, and everyone involved can see if the car is traveling along the most direct route. “Nobody I know wants to take a cab,” Miller says. “It’s definitely a weird vibe.”
There’s also the price point. Bennett says the cost is 20-40 percent cheaper than a taxi. During surge pricing, which occurs at times when demand soars, that discounted figure disappears. But Friedrich says he tells riders, “Wait about 10 minutes, and the surge usually disappears,” because the area in question becomes flooded with Uber drivers, and the high demand dissipates. Uber also offers a service on its app called “Notify me later.” Once accessed, it will actually alert a potential rider when the surge conditions have been lifted.
Yet another convenience that can’t be disputed: No money changes hands. The company discourages tipping, and riders can split the fare among their own Uber accounts. And for a generation used to finding whatever it wants online, the idea that Uber Black drivers can show up with ice cream or other amenities is extremely palatable. “I can see Uber drivers becoming concierges,” Miller says. “It’s so convenient. Once Uber is everywhere, it will be able to provide whatever people want, along with a ride, and charge a premium for it.”
George Fusaro was pretty angry on Halloween night. As he sat in his cab near the Saint Joseph’s University campus, he couldn’t believe what he saw. “I don’t know how many kids I saw get into old cars—beat-up cars—rather than a cab,” says Fusaro, who’s owned the Bala Cynwyd-based Maxwell Taxi Cab Co. for 20 years. “Ten cabs will drive by, but none of [the kids] will get into them. A lot has to do with the payment system that comes automatically off their credit cards, even though we take credit cards.”
It’s easy to see why taxi companies hate Uber. “UberX is cheaper. How am I going to compete with that?” says Fusaro. “They’re worth $100 billion.”
He’s exaggerating—though perhaps not by much. Conservative estimates have Uber’s valuation at $24 billion. Though companies like Maxwell are trying to offer different payment options and improve their response times, they still struggle to match Uber’s convenience. Its national profile gives it tremendous brand recognition, and its riders love the ease with which the entire transaction takes place. Fusaro estimates that Maxwell’s gross income was down $100,000 in 2014. “And this year is even worse,” he says of the 50 plus-year-old company’s earnings.
Richard Freas has managed Mainline Taxi for five years. And while he doesn’t offer anything in the way of specifics, he does say that Uber is “drastically taking away money from us.”
Fusaro and Freas vie for much of the same clientele, so they understand competition. But what really irks them is that there are no regulatory statutes on Uber in Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, the Public Utility Commission has stringent rules for how cab companies must operate.
When Uber began conducting business in the state, the PUC gave Uber—along with Lyft and others like it—a two-year window in order for protocols to be established. “We’re waiting for a legislative solution,” says Nils Hagen-Frederiksen, spokesman for the PUC. “Essentially,
we have to codify certain guidelines for these companies.”
Among the legislation that’s working its way through the House and the Senate is a bill introduced by Sen. Camera Bartolotta, a Republican from the western part of the state. His proposal aims to have Uber and its competitors comply with “stringent and appropriate insurance regulations, so we can protect drivers and passengers,” says Katrina Anderson, a rep for Bartolotta.
The bill was introduced this past August, and it’s making swift progress. But it’s not fast enough for people like Fusaro and Freas.
“We pay a yearly assessment tax to the PUC,” says Freas. “They don’t pay anything. If my neighbor decides to be an Uber driver, he just downloads the app and drives.”
It’s not quite that easy, according to Bennett, who says every potential Uber driver undergoes a multistate criminal background check that looks into his or her history over the past seven years in terms of violent crimes, sex offenses, DUI and motor-vehicle malfeasance. “The individual driver has been screened before the vehicle shows up to pick up a rider,” Bennett says. “And customers get the driver’s name, vehicle type, and license plate number sent to them before he or she arrives. That way, they know the person who’s driving and the car they’re getting into.”
Bennett insists that Uber insures every trip to the tune of $1 million. “From the moment the driver accepts the ride until it is over, our insurance covers the driver, the rider and any property,” he says.
David Kurkian plans on being a special-education teacher. But while he completes his studies, he still needs cash. So Thursday through Saturday nights—and some Sundays—he drives his black 2005 Jeep Cherokee for Uber. Most of his riders are “young,” he says, but he also gets some old-timers “between 25 and 30.” The 22-year-old doesn’t mind working weekends, since he’s gotten all of his partying out of the way and is more interested in making money.
Kurkian is earning more working part time with Uber than he did managing a Broomall gymnastics center. It’s been such a good experience that he’s considering getting his chauffeur’s license so he can drive for Uber Black.
“I think it’s a great concept,” says Kurkian. “I knew something like this was going to happen. People can go on an app, get a driver, and pay for it with their credit card. Everyone goes out, and everyone needs rides.”
Sounds like everyone needs Uber.