Uber & Lyft: Good for the Bar Business

Rob Kalesse

But does responsible drinking take a back seat?

The digital age of rapidly advancing technology is ubiquitous. Each day, new apps offer us ways to connect and make life easier, whether it’s sharing videos and photos, managing our bank accounts, or checking in and meeting up with friends.

The Uber and Lyft apps have revolutionized the ride-hailing landscape, which once consisted of either scheduling a car service well in advance or calling and waiting on a cab for who knows how long. While they both can be used to hop a ride anywhere, the prevailing destinations are bars and restaurants.

Naturally, the hospitality industry welcomes any assistance when it comes to getting patrons to belly up at their establishments. But sometimes those same apps can encourage folks to stay out past the point of intoxication, knowing they have no responsibility to drive. We asked some local bartenders about the positives and negatives of the digital designated driver.

John Kelly, a Wilmington resident who works at Tonic Bar & Grille on 11th Street, has seen his share of guests who range from the mildly buzzed to the utterly sauced. He believes Uber and Lyft have had a positive effect on business, especially in crowded areas where parking can be an issue.

“For the bars and restaurants, ride-hailing is great. It encourages people to stay out a little longer, and sometimes even gets people out in the first place, if they’re going where parking is an issue,” says Kelly. “We have a garage right around the corner, but the convenience factor is big for Uber users, because they can come and go as they please, sometimes for as much as it costs to park.”

Greg Safian, a bar manager at Trolley Tap House, says ride-hailing services keep the crowds out later, especially in his neighborhood, where parking can be almost non-existent on weekend nights. On average, Safian says, about 25 percent of his patrons use Uber on busier nights.

“The taxi thing is pretty much dead, especially in Wilmington, and I don’t know if you’ll find a bartender who doesn’t appreciate how Uber has had an effect on things,” says Safian. “I can recall, in the past, you might see crowds die down a bit after midnight. Not now. Having the option of what is basically a designated driver—to order—keeps people out, which is a good thing.”

Kelly says nearly 50 percent of his patrons use Uber, either to get to Tonic, get home, or both. And even on the occasion where someone has more than their fair share to drink, Uber makes it easy on the bartender to get the inebriated folks home safely.

“Before ride-hailing became popular, calling a cab for someone could take hours, and even trying to get the address out of a drunk person was a challenge,” says Kelly. “Now you can just ask to use their phone to call them an Uber, hit the ‘HOME’ button, and the car arrives within minutes. It’s not like taking someone’s keys anymore. Most people are happy to get home safely for just a few bucks.” 

Irresponsible Drinking?

While ride-hailing apps keep the inebriated and intoxicated off the roads, the notion of responsible drinking can sometimes take a back seat. After all, when a designated driver can be arranged at the tap of a button, what’s to stop bar hoppers from binge drinking?

Jen Stike, a former bartender at the Greene Turtle in Rehoboth Beach, is all too familiar with the issue. She’s seen hordes of already drunk bar-goers take advantage of ride-hailing at the beach, even though she knows part of the responsibility is still hers.

“I’m sure you’ve seen groups of people come into a bar at the beach in the middle of summer, out of control, yelling, ‘We’re not driving!’ or ‘We took an Uber!’ without realizing I still have a responsibility,” says Stike. “I still go by the old dram laws and consider it my job not to over-serve.”

According to the current State of Delaware Trained Alcoholic Beverage Server Program, Delaware no longer observes Dram Shop laws, which hold a business selling alcoholic drinks liable in the event that someone becomes intoxicated at the establishment and injures themselves or others. However, it is stated that overserving may result in fines and a civil penalty. Either way, Stike isn’t taking chances.

“I think that because people take Uber they think I won’t try and manage their drinking, or serve them responsibly, or cut them off if the situation warrants,” she says. “So, it’s added a little bit of a challenge. Trying to explain to somebody Ubering home that you can’t serve them anymore can be as tough as taking their keys away and calling a cab. I feel like sometimes Uber is used as an excuse, or a crutch.”

Much of Lyft’s and Uber’s business comes from bar patrons who are either heading out or going home. Photo courtesy of Lyft Inc.

Kelly says he’s seen multiple guests do just that—including one regular on multiple occasions—to the point where he must either cut off the person or ask for his or her phone to call Uber to pick them up. It’s an awkward situation, and one he tries to avoid, although sometimes he can’t.

“Bartenders are responsible for not over-serving, let’s make that clear right away,” says Kelly. “But if someone comes in off the street and has already been drinking, it can be hard to tell how far along they are. Sure, [ride-hailing] probably encourages more drinking, but the fact it offers a safe way home is key. It makes our jobs easier, that’s for sure.”

Uber’s Commitment to Safety

Regardless of where you fall on the ride-hailing argument, Uber officials stand by their commitment to provide a safe means of getting home, whether you’ve had one beer or 10. According to Craig Ewer, a Mid-Atlantic spokesperson for Uber, the company even set up a breathalyzer kiosk in Rehoboth last summer.

“Uber is changing the way people think about drinking and driving in Delaware,” says Ewer “By providing a reliable ride at the push of a button—no matter the time or place—we’re empowering people to make better, safer choices.”

Such is Uber’s commitment that, in 2014, it partnered with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) to further fight drunk driving and the accidents and fatalities it causes. Malcolm Friend, Pennsylvania state program manager with MADD, calls the partnership “a match made in heaven.” He adds, however, that his organization has no position on any individual’s alcohol consumption.

“If alcohol is sold legally to patrons over 21, and not those who are already drunk, then it is the business of the individual after that point,” says Friend. “Our goal is to see that people get home safely, and in that regard, Uber has been a wonderful partner. We’ve seen some numbers to specifically support that.”

According to a study furnished by MADD?though conducted by the Benenson Strategy Group, an independent, New-York based strategic research consultancy—the number of arrests for driving under the influence fell 10 percent between 2013 and 2014 in Seattle. Similar results were found in Chicago, Austin, Texas and Pittsburgh.

The numbers are encouraging, though no such studies have been conducted in Delaware. On a national level, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reported that the number deaths of resulting from alcohol-impaired-driving crashes—not arrests—actually increased slightly between 2015 and 2016, from a total of 10,265 to 10,497.

Safian believes that, in the long run, ride-hailing services are a positive. “My question is, would you rather pay the $5 or $10 for an Uber and worry about getting your car the next day, or pay a ton in fines if you get a DUI, or worse? To me, the answer is pretty clear.”

Uber and Lyft are both available to riders in all three counties in Delaware, including the towns and cities of Wilmington, Newark, Dover, Rehoboth Beach, Dewey Beach and Bethany Beach. The mobile app is available for free download on iPhone and Android OS, as well as Samsung Bada and Windows Mobile.

So, what do you think? Please comment below.