Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Uber says rides remain free in Little Rock

Posted By on Wed, Nov 19, 2014 at 10:25 AM

click to enlarge UP AND RUNNING: The app shows cars available. Need a free ride? Get the app and get one. And if they try to charge you, let me know.
  • UP AND RUNNING: The app shows cars available. Need a free ride? Get the app and get one. And if they try to charge you, let me know.

As noted here last night, the Little Rock City Board adopted an ordinance to regulate Uber and other "transportation network" companies that use a smart phone app to match drivers with riders. But the Board, which voted 6-2 with one "present" and two absences couldn't muster the super majority necessary to adopt the emergency clause.

City Director Joan Adcock asked last night what the city's stance on Uber operation would be in the meanwhile. It began operating more than a week ago and covered its scofflaw operation by saying the first 10 rides would be free through last Friday. What now?

I sent a note to an Uber spokesman about the situation. Her terse response:

Rides continue to be free for Uber users in Little Rock.

Absent an answer to my followup question, I'll presume that means you can engage an Uber car for free in Little Rock until the ordinance takes effect in 30 days. Or maybe next Tuesday, when the Board can take another run at adopting the emergency clause. Last night's regular meeting was "recessed" to allow for that possibility. City Attorney Tom Carpenter also said he'll likely offer an amendment to bring the insurance provision more in line with language recommended by the state Insurance Department.

UPDATE: An elaboration from uber:

We're offering free rides until the next board meeting, and we'll evaluate whether or not to continue them after the meeting, pending if an emergency clause gets passed.

Also: I was informed that drivers are receiving from Uber 80 percent of what the fare would have been if the customers had been charged.

MEANWHILE: Negative articles pile up about the Uber executive's comment that maybe the company should dig up dirt on journalists who write critical things about the brash tech boys. The loudmouth who got quoted has apologized. He said his quoted words  "do not reflect my actual views." Slate writes that Uber may succeed in turning around what has been a pretty smooth PR ride.

The market for ride-sharing, or on-demand car services, or whatever you want to call them, is a tricky one. Uber, Lyft, Gett, Sidecar, and the other companies in this space are all relatively young and haven't had time to develop any particular customer loyalty. And from a rider's perspective, it's easy to download a new app and start using it if you're dissatisfied with the service you were using. The same is true for drivers. As independent contractors, the drivers who make these ride companies viable aren't tied to any particular platform. If Uber is paying more, they'll drive for Uber. If Lyft or Gett offers better prospects, they'll head that way.

The point is that Uber—and Lyft, and Gett, and every other company like this—constantly risks losing the people on both sides of its platform. If it treats drivers poorly, as some say it already has, it could push those workers away from its service. And if it hits a nerve with customers—say with an apparently sexist promotion, a tone-deaf blog post about teachers, or a threat against journalists—it could see them go elsewhere as well. Right now, Uber's lead on its competitors is so big, it seems like it would be best off keeping its head down and steering clear of unnecessary controversy. And yet, so far, that hasn't been the case.

As in bullying its way into markets like Little Rock and Fayetteville (where it's operating totally outside the law).

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