Uber passes Richmond test-drive

Michael Pasco
Managing Editor

Joseph Grigsby uses his own car to transport Richmonders around the city for Uber. Photo by Christian Martinez

Last August, Richmond became the only city in Virginia with Uber, an inexpensive ridesharing service that relies on smartphone apps. 

On Aug. 6, Uber was granted temporary authority to operate in Virginia by Governor McAuliffe, Attorney General Herring, Secretary Layne and numerous general assembly members after several months of fines and legal red tape. 

The local Uber struggle began June 5, when Richard D. Holcomb, commissioner of the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, sent a cease-and-desist order to Uber. According to The Washington Post, Uber received $35,000 in civil penalties for operating without permits. 

In response, the hashtag #VANeedsUber was used by Uber and Twitter users to garner support from the Virginia government to allow the app and its users to operate with comfort. Two months later, Uber drivers were able to operate in Richmond without constraint.

“Virginia has been great — the government, the DMV and city officials all worked with us to allow Virginians to use Uber’s ridesharing,” said Taylor Bennett, Communications Lead at Uber.

Pricing for Uber is similar to taxis. There is a base fare, with additional fare added each minute in the car and each mile the car has driven.

“Uber is a tech company that revolutionizes the way people move around the city,” Bennett said.

In Richmond, base fare is $1.50 with an additional 20 cents per minute and $1.60 per mile. By comparison, Washington D.C.’s base fare is $2 with an additional 25 cents per minute and $1.25 per mile. 

“Fare-splitting is popular with college students,” Bennett said. “Fare-splitters enter in another rider’s name and the fare is split between both accounts.”

Users, referred to as “riders,” are also able to see the driver’s estimated time of arrival, or ETA.

“It’s useful to share with your friends whether they’re walking towards you or meeting you at a restaurant,” Bennett said. 

Interested drivers are encouraged to start their own business as Uber Drivers, and they are independently contracted.

Local driver, Joseph Grigsby started Aug. 6, when Uber began operating in Richmond. 

“I wanted the flexibility and I wanted to work for an innovative tech company,” Grigsby said. “This is much more enjoyable. I like it better than a typical office job.”

Drivers in each state must have a valid license and personal car insurance. Drivers are also subjected to background checks that go back seven years. All cities have different car options to choose from, but all vehicles must be of medium or hybrid-sized make. 

Grigsby said he chose to use his own car for Uber riders.

“I once picked up students shopping at Walmart around the first week of school,” Grigsby said. “Once they saw the size of the car, they went back inside to pick something up. We put a futon in the car and brought it into campus housing.”

When hired, drivers receive phones from Uber Technologies, Inc. Grigsby received an iPhone 4 using AT&T’s network. Each phone is pre-loaded with Google Maps and a different app than what riders can download and use.

“We can’t see riders the way you see drivers. We only see ourselves,” Grigsby said. “All we do is log in and wait to accept a call. We get a beeping message as it pops up and we go and pick up the customer.”

According to Grigsby, the app shows a map of the city. Once a driver gets a call, they see the navigation route to the customer as pinpointed. 

“I get about 15 percent of my customers from VCU,” said Grigsby. “(Students) tend to call around late afternoon or early evening.” 

CEO Travis Kalanick came up with the idea for Uber when he had trouble getting a ride when he needed it. In 2013, Uber Technologies, Inc. was named company of the year by USA Today. Vehicles operated must be of a 2004 make minimum and mid-sized or full-sized vehicles. Uber is now active in 42 countries and more than 200 cities worldwide.

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