My Turn: Uber is right for Juneau

I was surprised to read the recent Empire news story headlined “Why is Uber Wrong for Juneau?” It reported on proposed legislation authorizing “on-demand” ridesharing services in Alaska. The headline is somewhat misleading since it’s obvious many residents and visitors wish it were available. (Editor’s Note: The subheadline to that story was “City officials cite multiple reasons.”)


20,000 Alaskan residents have downloaded the Uber smartphone application (presumably to use when traveling) and over 60,000 people have opened the Uber app in Alaska. Despite this, Alaska is the last remaining state in the country to allow such services.

Uber and Lyft, the two most visible ridesharing companies, have experienced phenomenal growth. Uber is available in 500 cities worldwide and, together with other ridesharing enterprises, have revolutionized the concept of local transportation by providing a platform for independent drivers to “share their ride” with others.

Service requests are handled through smartphone apps pairing potential riders with the nearest independent driver at pre-negotiated rates (including tip) that are well below standard cab fares. No money changes hands as the rider’s secure credit card number is on file.

The initial comments by some city leaders were puzzling. Juneau is a “connected” town with lots of bandwidth. Despite that and the many advantages services like Uber and Lyft offer, their reaction was unduly negative.

City Manager Rorie Watt referred to the “peculiar needs” of Juneau and stated “I don’t think we’re ready for Uber.” Assemblyman Jesse Kiehl expressed safety concerns about ridesharing services.

Yet these ridesharing services now operate successfully in many cities across the country with similar characteristics as Juneau — with high seasonal visitor volumes and downtown parking issues, for example.

The misconception many people may have about ridesharing is thinking it’s just another cab service. However, statistics in states where Uber and Lyft are operating reflect a different story.

Initially, conventional cab rides decrease after ridesharing services are introduced but overall total rides increase considerably more.

In other words, while some cab trips will be replaced by ridesharing, the overall increase is attributable to unmet demand that will take private vehicles off the road. Many Uber and Lyft drivers are driving their private vehicles on a route they would be driving anyway (such as to and from work). They aren’t adding to traffic but instead are allowing someone else the opportunity to ride with them — thereby taking that person’s carbon footprint off the street.

Other part-time drivers without regular jobs or retired, for instance, would be at home or running errands and available to share rides during the day and evenings — the point being they’re not burning gasoline cruising for fares or idling downtown or at the airport. This added capacity and convenience makes it easier for people looking for a “night out on the town” to avoid parking hassles and even a potential DUI on their way home.

The concerns regarding safety seem unfounded. While cab drivers are fingerprinted and Uber drivers are not, both undergo a background check before they are allowed to operate. Even without the fingerprinting, a standard background check for all drivers would reveal any disqualifying criminal convictions.

Besides, there are safety features built into the smartphone app. When confirming an Uber ride, the rider is provided the driver’s name, license plate number, photo and rating — so you know who’s picking you up. The app allows the rider to track the vehicle in real time on a map to monitor its arrival time. The rider can stay indoors in a secure location until the vehicle arrives. Contrast that with calling a taxi dispatcher and waiting outside in the weather without a good idea when and if it will arrive.

Another important issue our capital city struggles with is the lack of transportation options at our airport, ferry terminal and harbors. How many times have you arrived in Juneau and found a line of people needing transportation and no taxis were available? This reflects poorly on us as a capital city and continues to be a real sore point with legislators and staffers. During the summer, the problem is magnified when many taxicabs prefer to host sightseeing tours rather than pick up a cab fare.

The self-regulating feature that ridesharing services like Uber provide is also a major advantage. Drivers receiving unsatisfactory ratings by riders are not permitted to continue in the program. Unlike cab companies, vehicles must meet certain standards and the driver is graded on such things as cleanliness, friendliness, correct routing, safe driving, etc.

It’s a good thing when new technology creates opportunities for environmentally-friendly efficiencies, lower costs and greater convenience. Our readiness to embrace these new ideas and the realization our community can adapt and benefit from them is what progressive thinking should mean.

Competition in commerce is always healthy. How can it be wrong to allow people to make their own choice?

• Win Gruening retired as the senior vice president in charge of business banking for Key Bank in 2012. He was born and raised in Juneau and graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1970. He is active in community affairs as a 30-plus year member of Juneau Downtown Rotary Club and has been involved in various local and statewide organizations.


Joe Geldhof 11 months ago
Quibbles about the headline aside, Win Gruening is right to elevate this issue and question the reaction by CBJ officials.  Essentially, CBJ staff put a fork in ride sharing services without public input or debate by the CBJ Assembly.  So much for the vaunted process oriented government beloved by many in Juneau.

Win wonders (and so do many others), why staff down at the CBJ summarily lurched into nixing expansion of the successful ride sharing services in Juneau?  He's right to wonder. 

The advantages of expanding ride sharing in Juneau are obvious.  The genuine problems associated with ride sharing have pretty much been addressed in a broad marketplace test around the nation.  So why are a few malcontents bent on squelching expansion expansion of ride sharing in Juneau?

My own belief is that Juneau's bureaucrats have acted in an irresponsibly reactionary way to this proposal, without regard to possibly providing the public with additional or even superior transportation services.  The reactionary response by CBJ staff and at least one CBJ Assembly member is part and parcel of our too often dysfunctional decision making process down at 155 South Seward Street.  

We get what we deserve here folks,  We elected our CBJ Assembly and even if you don't want to assign accountability to the elected CBJ Assembly officials for this reactionary block on legitimate commerce, our elected officials afford the appointed bureaucrats room to block initiative like ride sharing.  This is another example that illustrates the lack of adult leadership on the CBJ Assembly.  

The question that should be discussed is whether the CBJ is actually required to enact an ordinance that will allow ride sharing services to take place in our community.  Put another way, are ride sharing services prohibited?  If they are (and I am not assuming they are), then the adult response would be for the CBJ to propose adoption of an ordinance that would allow for ride sharing on terms that protect the safety of the public. In an adult world, the public could then provide testimony and comment on the merits of allowing ride sharing and a decision would be reached after consultation and consideration of the proposal based on the merits.  

All that has been preempted by bureaucratic fiat.

I suppose this will go down as yet another opportunity denied based on caprice.  Oh well .............................................................
WILLIAM BURK 11 months ago
Uber is WRONG for our city.  Here are several points as to why!  1  The city cab companies have to have a mechanical inspection every year.  2 The city police department inspects ALL cabs in Oct and April.   Ubers would NOt fall under these rules!  3.   ALL can drivers have to pass a DOT physical in order to drive a cab.   Uber drivers would not.  4.   All cab companies in Juneau are required to have at least 3 cans on 24/7 Uber would not .  5 Juneau s NOT big enough for any more cab companies.   We have 3 now and that is planty to accommodate a city of this size!
Joe Geldhof 11 months ago
The points made here are precisely the kind that should be made in the context of an actual debate that includes public participation before the CBJ Assembly.  But the conclusion that any bona fide ride sharing service is WRONG is not intuitively obvious anymore than the conclusion that a ride sharing service is inherently right for Juneau.  I happen to think it might be right.  I would like to hear genuine concerns about potential ride sharing in Juneau articulated and in a mature manner, if possible.  

But I suppose we will trundle on without regard to facts, reason or logic.  Such is the way of the modern world.  We'll just keep shouting at each other based on preconceived notions unrelated from reality.
Jc Harris 11 months ago
Should  Uber, Or Lyft come in will no rules? not pay a penny to CBJ? they have rules in other states and cities why not here? And CBJ has stated that they are not saying they can't come here, But CBJ wants to have local regulations for them. If any of you read the bill HB132 you would see that section 7,8 allows only the state to regulate that industry, And if you look even closer they have put 0 regulation so whats that mean?? Uber and Lyft would come to Alaska with absolutely NO RULES. All the CBJ is saying is that there needs to be rules, Why should Taxi's, Limo's, shuttles, Tour busses, Courtesy vehicles, Ect... All have rules and pay sales tax and fee's to the city and Uber, And Lyft should pay nothing?? 
This Bill could pass tomorrow if Uber, And Lyft would agree to having rules... But no, There is no money in it for them if they have rules.
This is all about Uber and Lyft not wanting rules
Joe Geldhof 11 months ago
Of course there should be rules.  Minimal rules designed to protect the health and safety of the public.  And the CBJ should collect the appropriate 5% sales tax on all transactions made by a ride sharing service.  That makes sense, right?  

Anything else that any ride sharing service should adhere to if they are allowed to operate?  Let's have it.
Jc Harris 11 months ago
this is what alot of people are not getting, people are putting this on the city, It's not the city it is Uber and Lyft wanting it there way or nothing


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