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Uber and Above

Cashing in on choice, change and creativity


There is a dot named Danny on the map on my iPhone. The dot is shaped like a car, and as Danny drives, the little car gets closer to my house. The dot turns onto my street and I look out the window to see a white Hyundai Sonata, driven by Danny Warn, pull up to my house. I decide between sitting in the front seat or the back, and pick the back. I slide into the beige interior, struck by how clean the car is. Though Warn has a pickup and a Harley, this is his main vehicle--but it doesn't feel lived in. His car doesn't have a meter on the dashboard, nor does it display any type of license. It's just Warn and his smartphone. I have never met Warn before, but he's taking me to work. That's his job, but he's not a taxi driver--Warn found a way to turn his new-ish sedan into a paycheck after seven weeks without a job.

"The job I had in IT was outsourced to Lithuania," he tells me as we turn onto 27th Street. "Right now I'm just kind of desperate for some employment."

As he navigates the construction uprooting downtown Boise and I ask him questions, Warn and I are partaking in the same thing thousands of other drivers and riders are doing in more than 40 countries and 200 cities. He's an Uber driver, working for an app-powered car service, and as his passenger, I am Ubering. It's an opportunity for folks to make money off their own possessions, and a chance for consumers to get a more personal connection tied to their cash.

In the long tail of turmoil following the Great Recession, a combination of technology and frustration is driving the rise of unconventional economic models—from cars on the road, to bartering pages on Craigslist, to a unique coffee shop in Eagle, consumers are faced with choices that go beyond swiping their credit card and walking away.

A Paradigm Shift

Thursday, Oct. 2, marked the Boise launch of ride-share company Uber. For the first time, Boiseans could download the free application on their smartphones, enter credit card information, pick a destination and digitally hail an Uber driver to pick them up.

Uber drivers—the company calls them "partners"—aren't piloting taxi cabs though. They're driving their own personal cars. They aren't licensed through the city, either. Rather, they've signed onto the mobile platform, undergone a background and driving records check through the company, and subjected their cars to a 19-point inspection. Cars must have four doors and can't be older than 2005. A driving infraction like a DUI in the past seven years ends a driver's career with Uber before it begins.

Since its worldwide rollout in 2012, the San-Francisco based company has been a phenomenal success. Valued at more than $18 billion as of Oct. 3, Uber offers drivers flexibility and the chance to make money off of their own vehicles. It also gives consumers a faster, cheaper and more personal experience than with traditional taxi services. Uber's slogan: "Everyone's private driver." Those factors combine to make Uber a symbol of what economists are calling the Sharing Economy: a system in which the relationship between consumers and providers is more collaborative than purely market driven.

Associate Professor Samia Islam, who has taught for 10 years at the College of Business and Economics at Boise State University, teaches classes on urban economics and the economics of happiness. She's been following this new economic model of sharing for years, and calls it a "paradigm shift."

"Ten years ago, you would have never gotten into a car because of what an online review said," she told Boise Weekly. But a lot of things have happened to warm consumers up to the idea of riding in a car with a complete stranger without a "TAXI" light overhead.

It started with the sharing of information. Programmers shared code, then Napster shared music, then YouTube and Wikipedia shared content. Through the rise of social media, people have gotten comfortable sharing everything from their interests and preferences, to the daily minutia of their lives. Now, we're sharing each other's time, expertise, bikes, cars, even homes.

Basing an economy on disclosure and sharing is tricky to regulate, and leaves cities, states and insurance agencies scratching their heads when conflicts arise.

Boise Weekly readers have heard about Uber before (BW, News, "Where the Uber Meets the Road," June 11, 2014), when the car service started eyeing Boise earlier this summer. With drivers signing on in places ranging from Los Angeles; New York; and San Francisco; to Paris; Mexico City; and Johannesburg, South Africa, controversy has followed close behind.

Uber has drawn criticism for multiple incidents in which drivers have been accused of kidnapping intoxicated women; committing sexual assault, rape, verbal abuse and battery; and refusing service to the disabled. Uber has been faced with more than a dozen lawsuits, including one stemming from a New Year's Eve incident in San Francisco, where a driver failed to yield to pedestrians in a crosswalk, hitting a mother and her son, and killing her 6-year-old daughter. Uber claimed it bears no responsibility because the driver was not carrying a passenger, nor using the app at the time.

The service has been banned in Portland, Ore., and discouraged in St. Louis and Kansas City, Mo., and San Antonio and Austin, Texas. Campaigns such as "Who's Driving You?" launched by the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association, warn people against downloading the app.

In Spokane, Wash., where Uber launched in May, the city has found itself embroiled in a regulatory tussle between ride-sharing companies and taxi providers. There, on Sept. 29, Spokane City Council members voted to strike a compromise: Uber and similar service Lyft will be able to operate for nine months, until a permanent regulatory structure can be crafted, and must pay 10 cents per ride to the city. According to the Pacific Northwest Inlander, both companies will be held to strict vehicle and background checks, and are barred from soliciting rides or stopping for passengers hailing a cab on the street. Meanwhile, to placate taxi companies, rules were loosened making it easier to hire drivers and get inspections.

The city of Boise hasn't been particularly worried about Uber operating in the city limits, however. In June, Deputy City Clerk Jamie Heinzerling told BW she hopes the company would work with the city "to run a legitimate business."

Uber spokesman Michael Amodeo flew from Los Angeles to Boise last week to prove Uber is doing just that. Amodeo sat down with BW to explain the ride-share service, saying the company decided to launch in Boise after thousands of people downloaded the app, "only to find when they opened it, there were no cars on the road."