Uber Has Arrived
Uber has caused quite a stir in many cities. Legal and municipal battles, along with some entire countries have plagued the company from launching, thriving and providing affordable accessible taxi services. Wichita, KS was one of 22 New Cities to have uberX launched over the Labor Day Weekend.
The promotion that was unveiled alongside the new cities that were launched;
“New and existing users of Uber could get your first five rides Free (up to the value of $25 each) through the 1st of September (Except Norman, OK).”
Suggested rides were to a stadium for a football game, a ride home from the campus library late at night, dinner with friends, and taking a little extra time to before having to drive to class (I assume this means avoiding a parking debacle).
Having ridden in UberBlack- the fancy version of Uber- in other cities such as New York, NY and Chicago, IL and generally knowing how the operation worked, I was mostly hopeful. Uber works, in any of its forms the same way; you download the app for your phone, create an account with a viable credit card or PayPal (prepaid debit cards do not work), and then select on the map where you’ll be for your pick-up. For some who don’t know, the service is meant to be immediate. Riders cannot reserve a car for tomorrow morning to the airport. Riders cant (well, shouldn’t) say “Oh give me an extra few minutes, not quite ready!” However, if the car is estimated to be 22 minutes away, you clearly have a little time. By hitting “Request” you are accepting to be picked up thus beginning your transaction, if you change your mind you are allowed to cancel your ride.Keep in mind, as with most things in life, you’ll pay a fee for canceling fee, according to Uber’s website; if you decide to cancel your ride AFTER 5 minuets of placing your request. However, if we expect your driver to be more than 5 minutes late (based on the current ETA), you may cancel without penalty. The minimum fare in Wichita, KS is $5, so that is what you would be charged. Just the same as in a big city, if you get in the cab you have agreed to pay the base fare. The drivers are also allowed to decline your fare. This fee was not charged to riders during this promotional weekend to my knowledge.
This past weekend I attempted to utilize all my free-to-me rides to the fullest. To test out uberX and see how it shapes up compared to the rather deplorable Taxi service we currently have in Wichita. I’ll say right now, I was less than thrilled with uberX.
My adventure started on Friday Morning. I have a singular dreaded class, Math at 10:30am. Trying to take the Wichita Transit System, typically I have to get to the bus stop or transit station an hour, usually an hour and a half before my class actually starts for the day.
On Friday, August 29th I got up around 9am, and before even getting ready to get ready to being a person I checked uberX. One car was available, one lonesome car. And it was less than 4 minutes away, fantastic! So I jump in the shower, do what I needed to do, and check uberX again (remember, no reservations immediate only).
No cars. Not a one. I hit the little car symbol which allows you to send out a “request” into the internet ether and it comes back with a little message that all cars are busy.
Well, hell. I’m now late for the bus that would get me to class on time. Don’t get me started on the bus systems issues. So, I decided “to hell with it” and go back to wallowing in bed. It’s not like I want to go to math anyways.
After about 30 minutes of doing nothing of consequence, I decide to check again. Bam! A car, but it’s 18 minutes away. At this point, it’s just about 10am. Though it’s all my own experiment and I still want to go through with it. I request the car, the phone then buzzes saying your driver is on its way, and you can watch the little car icon travel like a very poorly made video game. Instead I scramble; why can’t I find my shoes? Crap, 12 minutes away! Did I put deodorant on?? Gotta put the contacts in, don’t forget to see! Only 4 minutes away, gah!
The plus side to this feature is you can see exactly which way the driver is coming, so you can be on their side/direction of the road. Other security-type measures are that you are told what type of car they’re driving, the plate numbers, and a small photo of the driver. I shouldn’t have to say, but if the person in the photo is not who pulls up- DON’T GET IN THE CAR!
This did not happen to me thankfully, but it is as though the photo is one someone probably would use on a dating site. Sure, it’s them but a “better” them than their every-day selves.
My first driver was David, a middle-aged-looking white man, driving a well-kept Cadillac STS. I did need to contact him as he was driving because my address/pin/location on the app was not quite right. Riders and drivers are allowed to communicate only as the ride transaction is occurring turns out. As it is, I reside in the Oldtown are of Wichita it can be cumbersome to locate precisely where someone is. He found me with relative ease, and upon my entering his Cadillac he said he could have gotten out and let me in, unexpectedly gentlemanlike behavior, I said it was no problem as it was already toasty outside. Then the troublesome part came, I was headed to campus but he’s not familiar with it, pretty much knows nothing. And of course the academic buildings actual addresses are a complete mystery to me. He plotted the course in his uberX issued iPhone and we took the most “direct” route which is also the most stoplight laden route. I did tell him I’m going to class, but lied and said it started later than it did, since it was my fault I was late. As he drove, I asked him lightly probing questions about his thoughts about driving for Uber. He seemed content with the company and hoped the frequency of the day would keep up for him. We managed to make our way to Hubbard Hall, only 7 minutes late. He texted me a “Thanks and hope you have a great day (MisspelledFirstName)!” to which I attempted to reply, then uberX texted me that contact is not allowed after the trip is completed. Fair enough, I found this more comforting actually, if they can’t actively try to talk to a stranger.
My ride home, early afternoon, was driven by Michael. Who is an older white man with a scruffy white beard and a large microphone on his ear/face, in an ‘okay’ Dodge Grand Caravan (yes, a van) that had that well smoked-in aroma. Michael turned out to also not have many, if any, teeth. As I tried to talk to him, I can only kind of make out what he was sort-of saying. He seemed nice enough, and wanted to talk freely, I let him. He is a cab driver by trade, worked for years in Houston and a few years in Wichita for a cab company. He genuinely knows the short cuts. He told me of a passenger he had that was watching the GPS unit, and was getting concerned because he wasn’t going “on the line,” to which Michael said he had explained himself. The GPS finally caught up and the passenger then realized the way Michael was taking was rather a lot faster.
Same distance (give or take 0.25mi) in relation to where I was and where I wanted to go:
David’s fare #1, Michael’s fare #2
I wouldn’t mind riding with either of these men again, but Michael shaved almost a dollar and a half off and could fit more passengers. David’s ride was nicer, cleaner and offered more courteous service. I’m sure it would have been less difference if I had been at a different building on campus. Though not by a great amount.
Another feature is if the address you submitted for your pickup, isn’t quite where you are, you can text or call the driver. These are insanely helpful when you’re requesting a ride on campus. Did you know most Wichita State Buildings are really hard to find, when you’re not a student/Wichita native? People standing by the side of the road often could confuse the driver thinking they are the fare, when that person is in actuality waiting for the parking/campus shuttle. Contact between driver and fare/rider is disabled after the transaction.
Though there has been a few issues with this as well… though maybe it just happens more obviously with taxi services?
My critical nature is not out of nothingness. I have also been a rider in Wichita taxi cabs; ABC and Best Cabs Inc. Actually, I have to take that back. I attempted to ride ABC. I called 5 hours ahead of the time I because needed a ride when I was leaving work at approximately 9:45pm. Subsequently when I got off work, there was no cab. No call, no message saying they had waited and left- nothing. As most women don’t want to wait in the dark creepy parking lot alone, thankfully of my new-to-me coworkers offered me a ride home. Low and behold almost an hour after my requested ride time, I got a phone call asking if I still needed a ride, I did not. With Best Cabs Inc. I took one to the airport at 5:30am one morning, after calling the evening before and arranging it. The ride was fine, except the heavy smell of smoke (I’m asthmatic) and the loud Gospel radio station playing. Mind you, I also didn’t ask to turn it down, for fear of scaring him with my abrasive unpleasantness (I am the opposite of a morning person).
I was taking these cabs because I moved to Wichita, without a vehicle. Without a vehicle?? Outrageous! Preposterous! Simply unfathomable! Actually, it wasn’t all that strange where I had lived before. I got around on a bicycle, groceries, work, dining, shopping. And I loved it, I really did not want to buy a car. I curse you Wichita and your bike-unfriendly ways! But alas, I digress.
My Saturday was considerably more hectic in my uberX utilization. I had a dinner/drinks thing planned with a friend of mine. The scheduled start time was 6pm, I started checking for an available uberX around 5:20pm. It was a miserable game of Refresh, Refresh, Request? Nada, Refresh, Refresh… Finally about 6:40pm I caught a driver, fumbled about with the map quickly and hit ‘Request.’
Less than 2 minutes later, I get a message saying my driver had declined the fare. He was about 5 minutes away, which was completely frustrating. So, I went back to playing the crappy game, a few quick blips were gone too fast for me to “tag.” About 6:55pm I got one! Only 19 minutes away! I took it, he showed up a few minutes early, I’m guessing he got some good stop lights considering the street he was coming down. His name is Matt, his picture is a lumberjack bearded face of the very-red hair variety, in person he was much less axe-murderer looking. I can’t quite recall what his vehicle was, but it was a 4-door sedan, well-kept and very clean.
I did what I had been doing, and asked him how he was feeling about working with uberX, to which he tells me he’s had about as many cancellations as he’s had actual rides, so he’s not very happy (my fare on this ride he’s giving me turned out to be just under $8, I doubt that made him very happy either). He said one person was 3 blocks away when they cancelled his fare. He was confident it’s because they weren’t paying. Meaning, the people getting free rides also got free cancellations. After being annoyed by this, considering I had been trying to get a driver for so long, I was pretty shocked by this considering people were getting Free Rides, I was assuming they were of course since uberX had only launched the day before in Wichita, I suppose you could have used up your 5 rides in one day, maybe?
Matt also tells me a few things he had to do to be allowed to drive for uberX. He aced the background check, by of course not having any crimes on his record. Assembled vehicle information and then had to get his intended “cab” professionally detailed. Apparently, since the time crunch of the launch weekend, Uber didn’t actually require him to submit the documents before the weekend. So he was given a go-ahead without any formal “sit-down” training or meeting. Though Matt told me he had driven a cab before and didn’t need the training, he had expected more. He also told me about the history of Uber trying to get into Wichita, city council battles and people with the powerful pockets knocking it back for a while. Until people with more powerful interests allowed it to go ahead. He was hopeful it would catch on more. When I exited he had already been “pinged” for a few rides. Saturday night, people want to party!
During my drinks/dinner thing, I occasionally checked my Uber app, for the most part there were only one to two cars available at a time. Closer to midnight it showed what seemed to be 3 to 4 cars driving on top of each other which was odd, until I had realized it was in Oldtown (bars, bands, busy). I had some fantastic conversation until the wee hour of 1am, to which I couldn’t get a car- again. My friend knew what was happening so he didn’t mind my lingering. Finally I got an uberX, yet again on the other side of Wichita 18 minutes away. It seemed to take longer than 18 minutes but as my friend and I had been drinking adult beverages, I was dependent on the ride by then.
My final driver was Gordon, a younger white guy with a four door hatchback something. His photo he had a goatee and sunglasses, as it’s obviously night-time, it’s not really resembling him. He admitted he didn’t know the area I’m in very well, so I gave a general idea of how to get where I’m headed. And once again, I inquire as to his current endeavor. He seemed ambivalent, said they had been busy but he too had suffered a lot of cancellations (at this time I realize it’s him who cancelled my fare earlier, I don’t tell him). I did ask if he knew how many drivers they had in Wichita, and he told me what he was told by the Uber rep. That he was not allowed to release that information. My only guess for this reasoning is so you know where and who your competition is, you might be able to sabotage them? Gordon also said he had been using his friend’s phone to watch where the other drivers are. And confirmed my suspicion that at least on that night, he only saw 4 at most at one time.
By the time my 6 minute ride was over, Gordon had also been “pinged” for another fare. He just had to figure out how to maneuver in Oldtown parking. I bade him good luck and good night.
On Sunday I did random inquires of people I was just ‘around’ and what turned out to be a well-known service in some cities, is still pretty much unknown in Wichita among twenty-somethings. Very few people knew of it, fewer still knew that Uber had come to Wichita. Understandably it was early yet, but building “hype” around something seems pretty commonsense to anyone who has done ANY marketing.
I think Uber could be amazing in Wichita. So amazing I might be able to live without a car once again. But for now, its going to need to quadruple it’s drivers and make sure they are keeping up appearances as their site promises.
I was expecting Prius’s, Ford Fusions, Nissan Leaf’s but got regular every-day rides, suited me fine. The rating system is genuinely taken into account, and all my rides got 4 or 5 stars. I will probably use them again, when time is less of an issue. But I will also be keeping tabs to see how many cars are live on the app. My immediate hope is that they keep adding drivers but that Wichita Transit also ads on more busses and routes so that there can still be less and fewer cars on the road in this giant city. A gal can dream, can’t she? -K. Steele