Wanted: Uber in the Capital Region

A pair of Capital Region businessmen are urging local officials to encourage Uber to expand its crow
Uber West Coast Regional Manager William Barnes sits in the back of a car during a photo shoot Friday, Oct. 24, 2014, in Las Vegas.
Uber West Coast Regional Manager William Barnes sits in the back of a car during a photo shoot Friday, Oct. 24, 2014, in Las Vegas.

A pair of Capital Region businessmen are urging local officials to encourage Uber to expand its crowd-sourced transportation service into the region.

Local restaurateurs Matthew Baumgartner and Vic Christopher are asking the mayors of Albany, Schenectady and Troy to use their influence to encourage Uber’s expansion into the Capital Region. The expansion would add jobs, improve the quality of life, cut down on impaired driving, ease parking concerns and much more, they say.

But above all, they say it would provide an alternative to the region’s “deplorable” taxi and livery situation.

“Dispatchers are rude, if they pick up the phone at all,” they wrote in an April 9 letter to the mayors. “Taxis rarely show up when requested. Passengers have no idea how much the fare is going to be. The cars are filthy. When travelers arrive here — whether by bus, train or by air, they are forced to share a cab with strangers, and then each rider in that cab is charged full price. This practice is unheard of in other cities, and is an embarrassing first expression for people who visit the Capital Region.”

Local officials have been working to establish some sort of regional standardization of fares and service provided by local cab companies. But Baumgartner — who owns area Bombers Burrito Bars, Wolff’s Biergartens and the Olde English Pub — says even that would be too little, too late.

“That’s like trying to find ways to improve dial-up Internet,” he said.

The arrival of Uber to the market would help the region compete with other, similarly sized regions when it comes to expanding business and attracting young professionals, Baumgartner and Christopher said.

Uber, an app-based transportation company that launched in 2009, allows users of its app to submit a trip request, which then goes out to a pool of crowd-sourced drivers, who depending on location or route might accept or ignore the request. The first to accept gets the transaction. All payments are made through the app.

A growing service in major metros like New York City and San Francisco, the San Francisco-based Uber is also operating in regions of a similar size to the Capital Region like Augusta, Georgia; Harrisburg, Pa.; and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Pa.

Baumgartner and Christopher have approached Uber about the possible expansion, and said its response was encouraging.

“If we are successful, we would be the first region in upstate New York to have such a service,” they wrote.

“This is a no-brainer,” they said. “We cannot afford to have our region be left behind, physically and economically.”

Currently, Uber’s only presence in the state is in New York City. Company officials couldn’t provide details Tuesday on what a Capital Region presence might look like, but indicated they were more than open to looking northward.

“In communities across the nation, Uber has created new and better job opportunities for drivers and accelerated the growth of local businesses by allowing riders to easily and reliably travel to them with the push of a button,” said Uber spokeswoman Alix Anfang. “Uber has the potential to bring untapped economic opportunity and job growth to all of upstate New York, especially cities like Albany, Troy and Schenectady where business owners are calling for it.”

Uber has been hit with an onslaught of criticism and legal challenges since its initial launch, with government opposition over unlicensed drivers and business opposition from existing taxi services. The San Francisco-based company has also earned a reputation as cutthroat and vengeful, with reports surfacing last year of sabotage against ridesharing competitors like Lyft and threats of digging up dirt on journalists who reported negative news about the company.

Regional transportation officials could not be reached for comment Tuesday, but have acknowledged the region’s problem with cab service. The Albany County Convention and Visitors Bureau conducted a survey last year seeking opinions on local taxi services and received overwhelmingly negative feedback.

Establishing regional standards for cab service would help, said Schenectady Mayor Gary McCarthy, but any standards should include language about Internet-based transportation services.

“The business model for cabs is moving toward this Internet-based model,” he said. “The old model where you call dispatch and they radio out and send a cab over to you, that model is quaint. But we want to make sure that people who are driving cabs have some background checks and some standards. You don’t want people to be victimized by someone claiming to be a cab driver when they’re really out to rob people to burglarize homes. You want somebody with ethics and standards. So there really need to be some government standards put in place for these Internet-based models.

Capital Region economic development officials have launched a push in the last few years to market the region as attractive for young professionals. Luring a company like Uber here would help keep the region competitive for those demographics, Baumgartner said.

“The service they provide is exceptional,” he said. “It’s not just some privileged, exclusive service for people with money. It’s less expensive than a cab. It’s clean. There’s a water bottle waiting for you in the back. You can play your Spotify stations over the car radio. The real question is why do we not have this already?”

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