Hail, Yes

Rob Kalesse

Uber and Lyft lead a ride-hailing revolution in Delaware

It was an early Sunday morning and a torrential downpour had moved into the northeast corridor. Heather VanDeveer, returning home from a trip to New York, watched the rain drops pelt the window of her SEPTA R2 commuter rail car from Philadelphia to Wilmington. Regrettably, she hadn’t arranged for a ride, and it was too early to call family or friends without feeling guilty.

So she fired up the Uber app on her smartphone, and by the time the train pulled into the Amtrak station at 100 French St., a ride was waiting to take her to Trolley Square. Sans jacket or umbrella, she was able to skip down the steps and into the back of a warm, dry Toyota Camry.

VanDeveer’s driver offered her a bottle of water after her long (and somewhat hungover) trip. Parched, she inhaled it and thanked him. Ten minutes later, she was at the front door of her apartment. She tipped the driver $5 on top of the $9 ride.

A year prior, VanDeveer would have had to wait on a bus or try to hail or call a cab. But thanks to the technological advancement of rideshare apps like Uber, she had a handy option. And it’s one that more and more riders are taking advantage of now that both Uber and Lyft are operating in Delaware. The result is a ripple effect that impacts commuters, the economy, and cab companies and car services. Since Uber arrived in Delaware in 2015—first in Wilmington and Newark, and shortly thereafter in Dover and at the beach—the freedom to come and go at a moment’s notice has become a reality.

500 Uber Drivers

“We’ve seen riders in Delaware quickly embrace Uber as an easy, reliable way to get a safe ride at the push of a button,” says Craig Ewer, regional communications representative for Uber, which launched in San Francisco in 2009 and now operates in 570 cities worldwide. “Uber offers a unique, flexible work opportunity that fits around drivers’ lives, not the other way around,” says Ewer. “More than 8,000 people rode with Uber in Delaware from January through March, with roughly 500 active drivers in the state.”

Lance Charen, a resident of Forty Acres, says he first encountered Uber in San Diego in 2014, when traveling for business. He has since switched careers and no longer travels as much, so he decided to go into the Uber business for himself. Charen began working for the mobile app company as a driver in October of 2015, and he couldn’t be happier with his experience so far. (Drivers simply hop on the app, make themselves available, and wait to be connected with local riders, after which they pick them up and then drop them off at their destinations.)

“I love it, it’s a blast,” Charen says, before ending the phone interview because a customer had just pinged him for a ride. Later that day, he says, “I’ll never get rich doing it, but I’m between gigs right now, so it’s a way to supplement my income. It’s great extra money, I see some really cool stuff, and I come away with the best stories after meeting interesting people.”

Charen typically operates as a driver during the busier hours –Friday and Saturday evenings, or on weekday mornings when commuters and business travelers are looking to get to and from the local train station or the Philadelphia airport. One of his more interesting rides came in Philly.

“This couple hops in and they’ve obviously been fighting, and it gets to the point where the female says she’s had it with her fiancé, and right near Rittenhouse Square, I hear a ping against the back window of my car,” says Charen. “She took off her engagement ring, threw it at her about-to-be-ex, and that was it. I had to ask him to get out, because she had ordered the car. It was awkward, but I drove her to a nearby bar for a drink, and she tipped me handsomely.”

Charen says he is often on the clock all night when working between Wilmington and Philadelphia, though not all rides end with a big tip. In fact, according to many drivers (Charen included), tips are infrequent. Uber doesn’t currently offer in-app tipping (unlike Lyft), so tips must be paid to the driver in cash. If a rider doesn’t have cash, the driver goes tipless, but Uber still takes its 25 percent service fee off the total cost of the ride.

As for fares in general, with UberX, Uber’s most popular and cheapest option, rates vary depending on the time and day. However, there is typically a $2 base fare, $2.10 booking fee, and then a cost-per-mile and cost-per-minute. Says Ewer, “Riders are given an upfront fare, so they always know what they’ll pay before they ride; there’s no math to do and no surprises.”

One 2.5-mile trip across Wilmington on a Wednesday afternoon near lunchtime cost roughly $8-$11, with a minimum fare of $6.10, and a cancelation fee of $5. While anyone with a smartphone can start an Uber account as a rider, drivers must undergo a thorough background check before signing up. Additionally, all vehicles must be 10 years old or newer, must be a four-door, truck or minivan, and must pass a state vehicle inspection, as well as other requirements, before being approved for service.

Give Me A Lyft

As with all profitable enterprises, competition is inevitable, and in 2012 Lyft launched in San Francisco, making its way to Delaware in early 2017. While Lyft does not disclose market-specific data, the company touts itself as the fastest growing ridesharing company in America, according to Communications Manager Scott Coriell.

“At the beginning of 2017, we announced we would expand to 100 new communities, and as of [late March], we have already exceeded that goal,” Coriell says. “We get great reviews from riders and our drivers love the fact that passengers can tip within the app, something that is exclusive to our program.”
Christine Frick, a Bellefonte resident, started driving for Lyft last October to make extra money after falling into some debt with her daughter’s college bills. The holidays were approaching, so Frick had some retail offers, but she chose the flexibility of becoming a rideshare driver.

“I actually went to sign onto Uber online and somehow ended up on the Lyft site,” Frick says. “They offered me a mentor to get started, checked out my car, did a background check, and I got started soon after. I really love it. My day job goes from 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., so I have some time in the morning and after work to offer my services.”

Frick says she will sometimes park near the Philadelphia Airport, open a book and start reading as she waits for a ride request. She’s taken couples to the Hotel DuPont and single riders into the city. Many times, she doesn’t know if the riders tip her until she gets her monthly statement. But the fact that she doesn’t have to handle money makes her feel safe.

“People ask me, being a 60-year-old woman, if I’m worried about something going wrong or afraid someone would rob me,” Frick says. “But it’s so well-tracked that it’s almost impossible. Between the GPS they use and the credit card authorization to pay for the ride, it’s a pretty safe side job.”

The Ridesharing Effect

Local cab companies failed to respond to phone and email requests for comments regarding the growing popularity of ridesharing apps, or more important, what cabbies might be doing to keep up with the competition. The lack of response might speak louder than words.

But not all car companies are running for the hills. Sean McDevitt, president of Spirit Transportation, Inc., in Newark, often gets questions from clients about Uber and Lyft taking over the car service market. He feels his company can coexist with the rideshare apps, because they service a different clientele.

“We do mostly corporate airport transportation for executives, VPs and what have you, who in most cases don’t want to be driven by a random person off the street,” McDevitt says. “However, it seems like Uber has crushed the late-night ride market, something I, honestly, want nothing to do with.”

Bars, restaurants and hotels have noticed the dip in the number of cabs outside their establishments. Joe Mujica, general manager of Kelly’s Logan House in Trolley Square, remembers a time when calling a cab for an intoxicated patron or group of girls looking to get home safely was the norm a few times a night. Now, he says, it rarely happens.

“Back in the day, drunk people would ask us to call them cabs all the time,” Mujica says. “It took time to make sure they knew where they were going, where the cab was going to be, or if they even had cash. The nice part about something like Uber is it’s linked to a credit card, so it’s easy for you to call for a ride, tell them exactly where to take you, where to get you, and pay for it, especially nowadays when people don’t carry much cash.”

Spencer Derrickson, owner and operator of the Sandcastle Motel and Heritage Inn, both in Rehoboth Beach, says he hasn’t seen a cab outside either location in more than a year. Even around downtown Rehoboth, he estimates that Uber pick-ups outnumber cabs by 10 to 1.

“Especially at the beach, during the height of the season, you could wait 30 minutes or more for a cab, while Uber is usually close by and picking you up within 10 minutes,” Derrickson says. “For our business, there is no accountability with Uber. With cabs, we’d have to call them in and then be on the hook if the cab showed and the patrons had tired of waiting and left. Now it’s all between the Uber driver and the rider. It takes our concierge out of that equation, which is a good thing.”

Derrickson says the only ride in Rehoboth that has an advantage over Uber or Lyft is the Jolly Trolley, since it runs on a constant loop and picks up patrons every 15 minutes for just a few bucks.

On a personal level, Derrickson, who spends his winters near Orlando, uses Uber frequently, even for trips to the Philadelphia Airport from downstate. “I’ve taken Uber everywhere: from my house in Florida to the theme parks, and from my place in Rehoboth to the airport in Philly when I’m flying out,” Derrickson says. “Uber drivers are usually pretty nice, down-to-earth people who will chat it up for an hour or so, and it’s just a cleaner, simpler ride that is either on par with the cost of a car service, or cheaper. It’s really ideal.”

On the tail of Uber and Lyft are other car services, including Sidecar and Rideguru, but both have yet to get the wheels rolling in Delaware. For now, most First-Staters who like to get somewhere quickly, conveniently, and on the cheap go with Uber or Lyft. Down the road, more competition may make it even easier for commuters, tourists, and bar-hoppers to catch a ride.

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