A ride-sharing service called Uber will start operating in Anchorage this week. Instead of calling a taxi, people who need a ride can use a smartphone app to hail a nearby private vehicle. But taxi companies in Anchorage and around the world say it’s unfair competition.
I took a conventional taxi to my interview with Uber. I called the taxi company, and the driver arrived right on time in a sweet-smelling Toyota Prius. The ride downtown cost me $17 including the tip. That’s about how much the Uber app estimates using their service would cost as well. So why would I use Uber? Their West Coast general manager Steve Thompson says it’s because of convenience and safety.
“You sign up, pinpoint your location, click a button that says ‘Request my Uber’ to come pick me up, and from there you can track your ride, to come directly to you. See them street by street. Know exactly who your driver is by photo, name, vehicle make and model number, license plate number. And within the same app you can actually contact your driver.”
Thompson says all drivers have to pass rigorous criminal and traffic safety background checks. They don’t employ any one who was a sex offender or has had a DUI. They also require the vehicles to have 19 point inspections, and the drivers and vehicles have $1 million insurance policies when they’re on the job.
But the cars are not required to have permits from the municipality like conventional taxis, and the drivers don’t have to undergo municipal training and testing. Jim Brennan, who represents the Anchorage Taxi Cab Permit Owners Association, says that’s not fair.
“This would be a blatantly illegal competitor to the local Anchorage taxi cab chauffeurs and owners of the taxicabs who are required to comply with extensive municipal laws which are there for the benefit both of the Anchorage customers of taxicab services and also for the general public.”
So is Uber legal in Anchorage?
“Well, under our existing codes, probably not,” says municipal transportation director Eric Musser. He says that doesn’t mean they aren’t open to the idea of ride-sharing services.
“As with most areas of the country, we’re wrestling with how we want to welcome them into this market.”
Musser says the city recognizes that the transportation industry is changing.
Local companies realize it, too. Alaska Yellow Dispatch, the largest taxi company in Anchorage, released an app that works like the Uber app. You can order and track vehicles, and request special items, like a car that is authorized to go on Base or carries a car seat for children. At this point, though, you cannot pay through the app. Uber is completely prepaid through the app.
Yellow Dispatch CEO Sloane Unwin says the major difference is, once the payment feature is working properly, their company is permitted in Anchorage.
Uber’s Thompson says they are already working with the local government to make sure the company can legally operate in the city. He says they’ve already received over a 100 applications for drivers, some of whom already work for taxi companies.
“It’s complete flexibility for moms who drop their kids off at school and just drive during the day. Retired individuals who want to make extra income. Or even students who are paying off loans. So a big part of what we’re focused on is a very dynamic driving community.”
He says they’re appealing to veterans and service members as well. In some parts of the country, however, they are facing lawsuits from drivers who say they are not given the tips they are promised.
Once the interview is over, I need to find a way back to the studio. I figure that being in downtown Anchorage, it should be fairly easy.
I walk straight up to an empty taxi.
“Hi! Are you available?”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” the driver replies enthusiastically.
And I head back to the studio, chatting with the driver, my smartphone tucked into my bag.