Ride-sharing app begins offering Wichitans a lift

08/28/2014 7:58 PM

08/28/2014 7:58 PM

The age of Uber has arrived in Wichita.

The San Francisco-based online ride-sharing service, popular in many cities, made its debut in Wichita on Thursday.

Uber uses a smartphone app to connect prospective passengers with drivers who offer rides in their own vehicles. The app handles the billing through the riders’ credit cards on file with Uber, so there’s no need to carry cash and no tipping.

The driver and Uber split the money, with about 80 percent going to the driver and 20 percent to Uber.

Wichita is one of 22 U.S. cities where Uber took to the streets Thursday. The service is now offered in more than 100 cities.

The company activated the Wichita apps – available for Apple, BlackBerry and Android smartphones – about 11 a.m., said Poneet Kant, regional general manager for Uber.

He wouldn’t say how many Uber drivers are serving Wichita, but he said it’s in the double digits and that the company is still recruiting.

In some other cities, Uber’s launch has been met with strenuous opposition from traditional cab companies and a flurry of regulations from local government because of its similarities to heavily regulated taxi services.

But so far in Wichita, not so much.

Executives with Wichita’s two taxi operators could not be reached for comment Thursday.

From the government side, interim City Attorney Sharon Dickgrafe said Uber is not a taxi service because the private cars its drivers use aren’t equipped with taxi meters.

Dickgrafe said the city will be considering “whether there’s a need to regulate this industry.” She said the city will contact the stakeholders, including Uber and the taxi companies, as part of that consideration.

Kant said he welcomes the process.

“We’re definitely looking forward to working with the city of Wichita on what might be common-sense regulations that address ride sharing,” he said.

City’s recommendations pending

Dickgrafe said city staff expects to make recommendations to the City Council within the next couple of months. For now, the city’s not checking insurance on the vehicles or running background checks on the drivers like it does with taxi companies, she said.

Uber conducts its own insurance and background checks before allowing drivers to join its network, to ensure the safety of passengers, Kant said.

One of the new Wichita drivers, Teresa Renecker, said Uber is a godsend for her. Renecker, 49, said she worked as a mail carrier before she suffered a neck injury that has made it impossible for her to continue in that career.

She said she might be transferred to a postal job she can do with her physical limitations, but that the process takes time.

Driving for Uber has put her back on the road in a job that doesn’t require lifting heavy sacks of mail, she said.

“You drive a lot on both of those jobs,” she said.

While most Uber drivers use smaller, more economical cars, Renecker’s ride is a 2014 Ford Explorer that can seat seven. On Thursday, she offered her riders complimentary snacks and bottled water.

Renecker said she was looking for work where she could have a flexible schedule that would work within her medical restraints when she came across an online hiring ad for Uber.

“It was on Facebook, and I thought ‘That looks kind of interesting,’ ” she said.

She said she’s not worried about her safety. Uber doesn’t work without a valid cell number and credit card, so the company knows who it’s scheduling for pickup.

In addition, Uber allows drivers or passengers to refuse to give or take a ride “if your gut tells you there’s something kind of weird about it,” Renecker said.

A ride on Uber starts with a $2 base fee, plus $1.65 a mile and 20 cents a minute for waiting. There’s a $5 minimum per trip.

Regular cab services in Wichita charge a $2 base fee, $1 for each additional passenger, $2 a mile and 40 cents a minute when waiting on a passenger.

Reach Dion Lefler at 316-268-6527 or dlefler@wichitaeagle.com.

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