Where the Uber Meets the Road

Controversial car service seems to be eyeing Boise


Facebook posts and Craigslist ads recently popped up in the Treasure Valley, recruiting Boiseans to become drivers for something called Uber--an app that lets anyone older than 23, with a four-door car built after 2005 and personal auto insurance, drive strangers around and get paid like a taxi driver.

The four-year-old company already operates in Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Paris, Mexico City and Johannesburg, South Africa. The app, which was valued at more than $18 billion, according to a company news release dated June 6, recently launched in Spokane, Wash. Its ad boasts that drivers can make more than $20 an hour and get a free iPhone.

But, despite the advertising, Uber isn't in Boise--yet.

"We're excited about the Boise market and look forward to exploring opportunities in the future," Eva Behrend, communications director for Uber, wrote in an email to Boise Weekly. She said residents and visitors across the City of Trees have been requesting Uber drivers for months.

"Our team is always exploring new markets and engages in market testing to gauge the interest and viability of expanding to new cities," Behrend wrote.

Uber comes with some baggage, however, and not everyone is thrilled that the service might expand to Boise. First, there are several Uber-related incidents that have caused a nationwide stir: One Uber driver in L.A. was arrested earlier this month for kidnapping after he allegedly picked up an intoxicated 26-year-old woman needing a ride home and took her to a motel instead. Huffington Post reported in March that another Uber driver in D.C. was accused of rape; and in November 2013, a San Francisco man claimed he was assaulted by an Uber driver who hurled "racist and homophobic slurs" at him. A passenger in Oklahoma City was allegedly assaulted, and now, a woman in Chicago is suing Uber, saying that one of the company's drivers fondled her "legs, groin and breasts" and refused to let her out of the car. The worst allegation comes from San Francisco, where six month ago an Uber driver was charged with striking and killing a child in a crosswalk.

"Even though it's city-specific, it's still a national issue," said Chala Jones of the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association. She said three more people in Texas are now suing Uber for discrimination and not following the Americans with Disabilities Act.

"And that's just what's come up this week," she said.

TLPA recently launched public safety campaign called "Who's Driving You?" aimed at drawing attention to "serious safety and responsibility problems with companies such as Uber and [similar ride-share service] Lyft," according to a press release. The TLPA states that Uber has lax background checks, not running drivers through police and FBI databases, as most taxi drivers undergo.

Jones said some cities around the country including St. Louis; Kansas City, Mo.; San Antonio; and Austin, Texas, have sent Uber cease and desist letters. She said those cities' police departments have even set up stings through the app, and cited drivers upon pick-up.

So far, the city of Boise isn't discouraging Uber from expanding into this market. Deputy City Clerk Jamie Heinzerling told Boise Weekly she hopes the company would work with the city "to run a legitimate business."

"Our focus is really on health and safety," she said.

Heinzerling told BW that Uber drivers in Boise would have to follow the same laws as taxi drivers, meaning they need a taxi license, which includes a background check from the city. They would also need to undergo vehicle inspections four times a year, install a rooftop "TAXI" light on their cars and have a taxi meter following the city's established mile rates--but that's not Uber's model. For one thing, Uber has a set rate for fares (20 percent to Uber, 80 percent to the driver), and payment is via smartphone.

"A business could propose changes to any of the laws," Heinzerling said, "but if they were operating and not following the laws, there would be repercussions."

Heinzerling said she hasn't heard anything from Uber yet in regards to launching in Boise. But neither did Spokane, according to the city's communications director, Brian Coddington.

"We found out about Uber launching in Spokane the same way the public found out about it," Coddington said--through social media. Uber expanded to Spokane only a few weeks ago, leaving the city scratching its head on how to deal with the amorphous service.

"It's a new model, so we're still trying to learn how to handle it," Coddington said.

The city is having discussions on how to regulate Uber; if Uber's drivers should be held to the same standard as taxi drivers; if they should have a rooftop light on their car as well; and how to make the playing field level between taxi companies and Uber.

"Our biggest concern is that we're treating everyone fairly. We want to put together a plan that will accommodate cabs and give everyone equal footing," he said.

When it comes to competing with Boise's taxicab industry, Boise City Taxi co-owner Scott McCurdy has two words for the company: "good luck." As BW reported earlier this year, Boise has 184 licensed taxi vehicles, the majority being one-car companies (BW, Feature, "All's Fare In the Wild West of Taxicabs," Feb. 5, 2014).

"I don't know how Uber would compete in a market that's so oversaturated," McCurdy said. "But if you can't beat them, play with them. Let's just play the game. ... I personally feel it will be a passing fad, and one more example of the disconnect that reflects public transportation in the Treasure Valley."

McCurdy said he doesn't expect Uber to take away too much of his business. For one thing, "I don't know how they can come in and undercut Boise's [fare] price, because Boise is so underpaid as it is," he said.

Heinzerling agreed that Uber will have to decide if Boise's taxi market is too oversaturated to make its business model work.

"When you look at the taxicab line at the airport and there's only two or three fares a day for each, when they spend 12 or 15 hours waiting, is there really a market for that? There may be, depending on what they present as transportation. If people feel more comfortable with Uber, it might create a shift on the taxi market," Heinzerling said. "It all comes down to supply and demand."