For residents of Washington D.C., such as the writer who chronicled Uber for The Atlantic's current issue, the new on-demand sedan service is handy because its drivers are willing to venture into low-income neighborhoods when called. But in Seattle, the company is gaining a foothold with restaurant goers.
"We've had restaurants reach out to us," says Jen Joyce, who manages the Seattle branch of Uber, which is active in nine major U.S. cities. "They want to extend the service they're giving, instead of having diners go into the street and flag down a cab."
Uber is a digital mash-up of traditional taxiing and private car services. Launched in San Francisco in 2010, the concept connects riders with drivers in ways that wouldn't have been possible before the iPhone era. With Uber, prospective riders set up an online account with credit card information. They're then almost instantly granted access to a smartphone app showing the nearest available drivers, and how long it would take for them to reach the pickup location. All it takes is a click to summon a car - an order which is immediately confirmed via a text message introducing the driver by name and star rating.
I recently used Uber and didn't have any trouble appreciating its charms. On a rainy day, when my transportation choices are riding my bike or walking six blocks to a bus stop, it feels like an impossible luxury to have a uniformed driver outside my office, holding open the door to a fancy black car, within three minutes of my requesting a trip. And I didn't have to worry about whether I had cash in my wallet, since the gratuity-included fare was charged to my credit card. "Technically, you could ride with just a phone," Joyce told me later.
It took me about 12 minutes to reach Skillet Diner from my office at Madison Street and Western Avenue. Unlike most livery services, Uber charges by time or distance, depending on how quickly the car is moving: My trip cost $15. My fee was refunded because I used a discount code, which is easy to find online, but the price was steep enough for me to sympathize with complaints that Uber is skimming the wealthy from the taxi passenger pool, creating hardships for cab drivers struggling to pay the bills.
Uber's drivers aren't complaining. My driver told me he feels much safer traveling without cash, and likes how Uber allows him to rate passengers. Riders who receive extremely low ratings, such as the backseat fist-fighters he recently transported, are banned from the system.
According to my driver, business has been sluggish lately, but he attributes the paucity of passengers to the season. His friends in the hospitality industry have been telling him about 30 percent occupancy rates, so he's not surprised that traffic only picks up during special events, such as the Mariners' home opener.
Joyce declined to share any hard data, but says Seattle - the third city added to the Uber portfolio - has been very responsive to the Uber concept.
"We're a steady climb, but it's definitely growing," Joyce says.
The company's pushing growth by partnering with restaurants in Belltown and Capitol Hill; earlier this year, Manhattan Drugs' Facebook page promoted a free ride code and a recent distillers' dinner at Spur included transportation by Uber. Joyce says Uber's also distributed $10 discount cards for restaurants to slip into check presenters. The card is a conversation starter, she says.
She especially likes the conversations which unfold along the lines of a tweet she recently forwarded me. During Restaurant Week, a Mistral Kitchen diner tweeted, "Restaurant calls cab for us, no show. Calls again, still no show. I summon @Uber_SEA, showed up in <3 minutes."
Joyce called the dispatch "a perfect tweet."