April 1, 2014

Uber launching rideshare service in Modesto area

Uber, the app-based driver- and ridesharing service, is launching in Modesto. Popular in urban areas, the service will kick off with its lower-cost UberX and offer rides in Modesto, Ripon and Turlock.

Never mind sticking out your thumb. Now just tap an app and a ride is at your fingertips.

Uber, the app-based driver- and ridesharing service, is launching in Modesto on Thursday. Since it was founded in 2009, the San Francisco-based company has spread quickly into major cities across the globe, with Modesto as its 10th metropolitan area in California.

The service uses a smartphone app to connect drivers with riders and to handle all fares and tips. The company offers several levels of service – from high-end UberBlack and UberSUV to lower-cost UberX. Modesto will launch with UberX, the ridesharing service in which drivers use their own cars to pick up customers.

The company touts its speedy on-demand service and cheaper prices compared with cabs or limos. The concept has proven popular in urban areas, and celebrities from Neil Patrick Harris to Snoop Dogg have touted its benefits.

Uber spokesman Spencer Rinkus said the service selected Modesto, its 44th U.S. metro area and 87th internationally, because of the potential for growth in the Central Valley. The company launched UberX in Fresno in February.

“Modesto and its surrounding areas are a big part of our plan to cover the majority of Northern California. The Uber app is useful if it’s in the largest cities in the world, but becomes incredibly more appealing if you can request a ride nearly everywhere you travel – whether that’s Munich, Manila or Modesto,” Rinkus said. “Modesto is our next stop, and we’re excited for the potential there. The downtown area is growing, with lots of great bars and restaurants, and we think Uber will fill a need for safe, efficient and affordable rides.”

Uber will provide coverage throughout Modesto and will extend to Ripon and Turlock. Drivers have the ability to be online for rides 24 hours a day. To kick off its Modesto operations, the company is offering $20 for up to two free rides to anyone who use the “RIDE209” promo code.

To use the service, customers need to download the free Uber app on their smartphones and sign up. To request a ride, open the app and it will zero in on the location automatically. All transactions are done via the app, so no cash changes hands during rides.

UberX drivers need to pass a background check, have a clean driving record and own a four-door vehicle no older than 2006. Vans and pickups are not permitted. But unlike cabbies, the drivers do not need to have a valid taxi driver’s license or pay a permit fee to the city. The service has clashed in several cities with taxi and transportation commissions.

Jay Akbari, owner of Modesto’s United, DeSoto and Metro cab companies, said companies such as Uber threaten their business. He also said that because Uber drivers are unlicensed and on private insurance, they could pose more of a public safety risk.

“The whole thing is about licensing. We go through twice yearly inspection through city of Modesto. These guys have nothing like that,” Akbari said. “My guys have federal background checks, drug testing, training. They (Uber drivers) have private insurance and private vehicles.”

Last fall, the California Public Utilities Commission approved app-based rideshare companies such as UberX and its competitors Lyft, SideCar and InstantCab, becoming the first state to regulate such services.

In Modesto, UberX is launching with more than 20 drivers. First-time Modesto Uber driver Tim Lorge signed on to the service to give himself extra money and flexible hours.

The 48-year-old has no previous cab or chauffeur experience but was looking for a change in profession after being laid off from his job of 18 years as an operations manager for a uniform company. He saw an employment ad for Uber about three weeks ago and applied without knowing much about the company. After being vetted, he was supplied an iPhone, Uber car sign and other equipment.

“This is almost like being self-employed,” Lorge said. “It gives me freedom. I’m really excited and want to start working.”

But Lorge admits it is new technology that might have a steep learning curve to overcome in the area. He had not heard of Uber before applying. Neither had its planned first rider, Modesto Mayor Garrad Marsh. He will be the first ceremonial rider today, taking a trip from City Hall in the afternoon.

Marsh needed his grandson to tell him what Uber was. “You know, it was interesting, my grandson is in town and he and I were talking yesterday. He is quite familiar with it,” Marsh said. “I don’t know if we’re urban enough to make it something that could be successful, but we’ll find out. I think we have a fine taxi service in town at this point, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be other options.”

Uber sets the price for fares in each city. To start, Modesto fares will be a $3 pickup with $2.20 per mile and 35 cents per minute added. There is a $6 minimum per ride. Comparatively, Akbari said his cab companies charge $3.25 pickup with $2.50 per mile. Other taxi companies in the area charge anywhere from $3 to $4 pickup and up about to $3.50 a mile on average.

Rinkus said he realizes there might need to be some education about Uber in Modesto. But he remained confident that the service could flourish in the region.

“Like any major metropolitan area, Modesto has a strong nightlife scene and there will always be a need for safe and affordable rides,” he said. “Because the city is spread out, sometimes driving appears the only option, and we’d like to help change that perception. We need to communicate how affordable Uber is, and that things become easier when you never need to worry how you’ll get from one place to the next.”

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