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.