Ride on

Uber, the renegade taxi service, hits the streets in Reno

Uber driver Shaun Hunter poses with his friend Regina So at the Silver Legacy.

Uber driver Shaun Hunter poses with his friend Regina So at the Silver Legacy.

Photos/Eric Marks

It’s Saturday night. I pull my car up past the waiting line of cabs sitting just outside the Grand Sierra Resort’s lobby entrance to a nicely dressed couple and roll down my passenger-side window.

“Are you Shaun?” the man asks as they walk toward the car.

“I am. I’ll be your Uber driver,” I respond as they get into the backseat. We pull away.

Since Uber’s launch in Northern Nevada on Oct. 24, the ridesharing service has sparked polarizing opinions in regard to its place in the state’s economy.

Uber, with other start-ups like Lyft and Sidecar, is a San Francisco-based tech company looking to make more efficient the private-vehicle-for-hire model that has traditionally belonged to taxi and limousine services. Uber uses a smartphone app to link those looking for a ride to drivers who are offering rides in their personal vehicles, allowing riders to summon a ride with the push of a button and track the approach of the driver through the app. All riders pair a credit card to their account when signing up, and are billed by Uber automatically at the end of their ride, making the ride a cash/cardless transaction.

One of Uber’s most vocal opponents has been the taxi industry, which asserts that ridesharing services’ drivers are not required to meet the same standards as licensed cab drivers and are not bound to the same pricing regulations as taxi companies, allowing Uber to undercut the cab company’s pricing structure. For its part, Uber points out that it does not employ drivers, but merely provide the technological software for independent contractors, whom they call ’partners,’ to use. Uber also says that in order for a potential driver to qualify, he or she must pass a background check and drive only an approved vehicle that has passed every point of a multipoint inspection.

Aside from this disruptive conflict of entrenched industry versus tech-friendly start-up, Nevada possesses strict laws about unregulated private vehicles hiring themselves out, and within an hour of Uber’s official launch in the state, Carson City District Court Judge James Russell, at the behest of the State Attorney General, issued a temporary restraining order against Uber’s operations in Nevada. This made driving for Uber punishable by a citation and vehicle impound.

That weekend I switched on my app and became an Uber driver.

Immediately after I drop off the couple at their home, my phone beeps and alerts me to my next call. I drive to Victorian Square in Sparks where a group of four partiers, all dressed as zombies, get into my car and ask to go to the Zombie Pub Crawl in downtown Reno. Generally, I have bottles of water in the car to offer passengers on longer rides, along with charging cords if someone asks to charge their phone during a ride, which illustrates the more casual riding environment that Uber pushes in comparison to that of a taxi. This ride quickly takes on a joking tone, with the zombies saying they were excited when they heard Uber was coming to Reno after having used it in their hometown before moving to northern Nevada for work.

Then they ask about Uber having been told to cease operations in the state.

“This may or may not be legal at the moment,” I said. Rather than being off-putting, these conversations usually tend to go the other way, with riders saying they hope to see it become accepted. So far, no one has let the gray area of the legal situation deter them from riding.

Uber drivers are essentially independent contractors who have been approved to receive ride calls when logged into the app. We drive our own cars and pay for our own gas and car cleaning, though Uber sets the rates. The pattern seems to be to charge less than the standard taxi rates, although they have incorporated “surge pricing” into their rates in the past, which, similar to hotels on holiday weekends, raises their rates at peak times to encourage more drivers to get on the road but has resulted in some unexpectedly pricey rides for users who don’t check the estimated fare function on their app.

Due to its size and tourist market, Las Vegas has been ground zero for the taxi cab/Uber conflict, with over a dozen drivers having received citations and having their cars impounded. Uber has vowed to handle all of their drivers’ fines and pay for legal representation and rental cars for affected drivers. And their pockets run deep. In 2013, Google Ventures, in their single largest investment deal, invested more than $250 million into the tech company. That makes Uber a wealthy, scofflawing David taking on Nevada’s taxi cab industry Goliath.

While the pub crawl rages downtown, I’m running to restaurants to take home couples after their date night or driving students from one university area house party to another, or taking people from their home in the suburbs to catch their red-eye flight at the airport. These are the prime hours for the evening.

I take a call at the Peppermill, again passing the line of cabs waiting in the valet area driveway. Four guys smelling like a boozy cologne aisle hop in and talk about how the club at the casino was a “military sausage party,” and that they are headed to the nightclub, Lex at the Grand Sierra Resort. They go on to drunkenly ask each other what stocks the others have purchased recently, stating vaguely to each other, or possibly just into the air, ’Google. Tesla,” or “dude, GoPro! GoPro!” Two in the back begin talking about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s wedding party, while the rider up front is asking no one in particular which girls he should invite to their table at Lex.

These riders don’t engage me in conversation, so I just tune out everything but the music playing over my stereo and head toward the GSR. Still, I can’t help but to hear the phrases, “at least five bottles,” and “I got a black card, my dad won’t even notice,” before I drop my fare off at the casino entrance.

Almost immediately after they’ve gone into the casino, I get a call and swing back around to the GSR entrance to pick up four 20-something women visiting from Sacramento for a “girls” weekend. They ask to be taken to Midtown.

“Isn’t Lex just heating up right now?” I say.

“Ugghh,” answers one in the back.

I understand.

Shaun Hunter, behind the wheel, poses with his friends, clockwise, Kelsea Hewitt, Theo Meek and Sam Cruz.

In the year 2000, Blockbuster had the opportunity to buy Netflix. Blockbuster had around 7,700 stores at the time; Netflix had only around 300,000 subscribers who relied on the postal service to deliver DVDs from their queue. Blockbuster passed on the proposal.

In 2004, Blockbuster tried to launch its own subscription service.

In mid-2014, Netflix announced that it had over 50 million subscribers worldwide.

When was the last time you rented anything from Blockbuster?

I get it. I drive by the line of cabs waiting for walk-out traffic in front of the casinos, while I get riders who are moderately tech-savvy. Uber handles all the payments through their app so I never have to worry about money or informing riders of additional credit card fees. I don’t have to rent my car from my employer and hope that the night will bring enough business to recoup my expenses. And I get how Uber drivers are skirting a legal gray area and picking up riders that would otherwise have cabs as their only ride option.

On Oct. 29, five days after Uber’s launch and subsequent restraining order in Nevada, Clark County Judge Douglas Herndon denied a countywide restraining order sought by the Nevada Transportation Authority, saying, “I think competition in business is a good thing.” The decision left Uber’s Las Vegas area operations still technically illegal, but slightly more open-ended until an injunction case can be heard.

It’s getting later, and many of the zombies from the pub crawl can be seen in long lines at fast food drive-throughs or stumbling and slightly bleary-eyed down otherwise quiet streets. I get a ride request from one of the downtown bars and drive carefully through the scene of a zombie apocalypse and a few people dressed up as Pokemon characters who add a bit of out-of-place color to the sidewalk crowds. I pull up and a girl gets into the car and gives her address, heading home for the night. We drive north on Virginia Street, past the closed Virginian Casino tower, empty since 2005, past several now closed and vacant downtown gift shops that until recently had discounted postcards and casino-themed mugs and T-shirts, past the block of fenced-off closed motels that sit across the street from the Circus Circus like the old Golden West Lodge and the Heart O Town Motel, closed 2009.

She tells me she grew up in Reno, but that she wants to eventually move to a city with more career opportunities. Riding in the passenger seat, she looks ahead and continues, telling me that she’s 19 and lived in Reno her entire life, but that there’s not much happening here and she thinks the growth potential might be limited.

“Wait, 19? Didn’t I just pick you up from a bar?”

The vestiges of Reno’s gambling heyday are a reminder of the fluidity of fashions and technology. As Las Vegas has become the more popular tourist destination in the state and another chunk of Reno’s gambling revenue decreases in relation to the spread of tribal casinos in California, the city of Reno continues to try to establish a solid post-gambling economic foundation, one where the mothballed casinos and kitschy souvenir shops sit in dim contrast to the success of the Midtown shopping and dining district and local excitement about the construction of Tesla’s new battery-manufacturing plant and Apple’s remote data center.

She thanked me for the ride and got out. “Be safe,” I told her as she shut the door. I turned the car around and headed back downtown.

Since rideshare start-ups rolled out—frequently under similar legally murky circumstances—new ordinances have been approved in places like Seattle, Austin, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and statewide in California, allowing for the coexistence of app-based ridesharing services with traditional cab services.

Earlier this year, San Francisco Municipal Transporation Agency representative Kate Toran cited numbers showing the average monthly number of rides per cab in the city being around 65 percent less than during the same month two years ago. The use of ridesharing services by Bay Area commuters is believed to be the primary cause of this shift.

In response to ridesharing services’ fast-paced growth in the transport market, cab drivers have staged strikes in cities around the world, including London, Milan, Barcelona, Washington, D.C., and Las Vegas. The ridesharing companies claim that this, in turn, has resulted in a surge of new accounts created for their services during these strikes.

Many of the people I’ve picked up are familiar with Uber and other ridesharing apps from their use in other metropolitan areas like New York City or Boston, where it is often a cheaper alternative to use the services to commute rather than driving a car. On rides, I frequently get asked how I like driving for Uber. The truth is the opportunity just happened to be a great fit for me. I have a primary job, so I’m not dependent on Uber for the money and can choose which hours, if any, I want to work. From what I’ve seen, Reno still has a relatively small number of users that I don’t think would make Uber viable as a sole means of support.

The current state of Uber in Reno gives a driver a live view of the effects of a fringe market on an established industry. And already, at least one local cab company has developed and begun using their own mobile-device applications to hail a cab.

I get a call to the outer developments of northwest Reno. It’s late, and the wait time between calls has gone from being nonexistent at the height of the rush to lasting up to 10 minutes now. There are fewer cars in the downtown area now, and no other cars as I get farther and farther out of downtown. I pull up to the address given, a house with no interior lights on. After I text the person who called, a couple comes out and gives the address of their home in another part of Reno.

The quietness of the drive is a welcome change to the freneticism of so many downtown stops in the midst of the pub crawl. We exchange a couple of questions, and then the music plays softly as I head down North McCarran Boulevard toward Caughlin Ranch.

I drop them off at their home and call it a night, heading back in the direction of the casinos downtown that have switched off the colored lights and flash only a few red bulbs at the edges of their exteriors. I see on the Uber app that there is only one other driver still on the road. As I drive at a slower pace down Fourth Street back in the direction of my apartment near the river just outside of downtown, a cab speeds past in the opposite direction.

Uber is an experiment in Nevada. It raises questions as to whether a new company can challenge the established taxi industry and a list of legal statutes and regulations drafted before the technologies used by rideshare services even existed.

Rideshare services like Uber and Lyft have shown they are a threat to the cab industry’s income, and though many drivers in that industry rightfully worry that their own income may be affected if these services are given the green light, such services have already forced improvement in the experience of hailing and waiting for a cab.

For now, Uber’s existence in Reno is illegal. A Washoe County judge has given the injunction hearing a Nov. 25 date to determine whether Uber and its “Partners” can operate within the county. Until that time, a few renegade drivers are out on the streets, shuttling riders through just one of the gray areas of Reno’s entrance into a more tech-centered era.