Anyone needing a ride in Tucson can now summon one with a few taps on their phone.
UberX launched in Tucson on Thursday. The company’s Web- and smartphone-based application connects drivers with people looking for a ride.
Uber is a technology company and doesn’t own any vehicles or employ any drivers. Instead, UberX drivers use their own vehicles to ferry around passengers they find through the application. Uber provides services in 48 cities globally, including 26 in the U.S.
“We saw Tucson as a natural partner, not only because of the geography, but it’s the second-largest city in Arizona and has a large tech and innovation community,” said Steve Thompson, the Uber Phoenix general manager.
Users create a profile on the Uber mobile application. When they need a ride, they request one through the app. A map shows nearby drivers, and riders can get an estimate for their fare.
“You never have to wonder, ‘Is my cab coming?’ because you can see it in real time,” Thompson said.
No cash changes hands because the fare is charged to the credit card associated with the account. The cost of a tip is built in.
Uber was founded in 2009. Initially, it functioned as a black-car service. Existing limo and luxury drivers could use Uber to find customers in the lulls between contracted work. Uber has expanded to include a low-cost car option, UberX.
Independent contractors use their personal vehicles to drive people around. Thompson estimates that an UberX ride costs about 10 percent less than a taxicab ride.
“We thought it was a natural fit for the student population,” Thompson said.
Uber hosted a launch party on Thursday night at Playground Bar & Lounge downtown. The crowd skewed younger and most people were excited about the launch, even if they hadn’t heard of or used Uber before.
“I do everything from my phone,” said Charles Pifer, 30. “I got dropped off, so I could get driven back by it.”
David Allin, 59, was waiting to meet his wife for dinner. They’ve used Uber while traveling in Los Angles and New York and liked the service.
“I was surprised. I didn’t know we would merit their interest,” Allin said. “I’ve used taxis in Tucson and this is more convenient.”
Allin has a daughter at the University of Arizona.
“I just signed her up (for Uber), she doesn’t know it yet,” Allin said. “Point being, if she is out in the evening, she doesn’t have to worry about carrying cash. She can get in the car and it will deliver her to the front door.”
Thompson, from Uber in Phoenix, said aside from the drivers, Uber won’t be hiring in Tucson. The management will be done from Phoenix, where Uber has three employees.
In order to become a driver, applicants have to pass a background check, interview with the company and have a vehicle that is a 2005 model or newer.
Leigh Havins is an UberX driver in Phoenix. She was visiting family in Tucson and stopped by the launch party. She works full time as a business consultant and was looking for a part-time job to supplement her income when she became a driver about a month ago.
“I loved it more than I thought I would,” Havins said. “You get to meet cool people and engage in your community. That’s what’s keeping me involved.”
She drives on Fridays and Saturdays during the evenings and Sundays during the day. On average, she said she makes $20 to $30 an hour after Uber takes its 20 percent share.
Not everyone is happy to see Uber’s expansion. Ride-sharing services have found opposition from some cities and existing taxi and car services.
“UberX, like all rogue ride-sharing apps, could put almost anybody behind the wheel of a personal vehicle and have them start picking up passengers,” Alfred LaGasse, CEO of the Taxicab, Limousine & Paratransit Association, said in an email statement.
“Their drivers have not passed the same background checks, vehicle inspections and commercial auto liability insurance required of licensed taxi and limousine services.
“It amounts to electronic hitchhiking, and people will get hurt unless there is regulatory oversight,” LaGasse said.
In Arizona, the Department of Weights and Measures is responsible for licensing taxi drivers. Shawn Marquez, director of compliance programs, said drivers who are transporting passengers and charging a fare need to be licensed.
“I can’t emphasize enough — having a phone app does not give anybody the ability to not come in here and get a license,” Marquez said. Included in requirements for licensing are commercial insurance, a background check and vehicle inspection.
Thompson said UberX drivers are covered by a $1 million company insurance policy.
“We are talking with regulators right now to define ride-sharing,” Thompson said.
Mike Pinckard is the president of Total Transit, parent company of Discount Cab, which is based in Glendale.
“We do welcome competition,” Pinckard said. “We just want to make certain they are operating safely and consumers are protected.”
Pinckard has been in the privately owned transportation business for 10 years. He noted Discount Cab also has a mobile application, website and text messaging service.
“I would say technology in general is creating exciting changes in the industry,” Pinckard said. “This new service is increasing the pace of that change.”