UPDATE: Reports that Uber has suspended service pending a November 6 court hearing are incorrect; the rideshare service continues to operate in Las Vegas. In a prepared statement, Uber’s Eva Behrend said, “For far too long, the people of Nevada have been denied access to the reliable, safe and affordable transportation options millions of other Americans are enjoying. We’ve already received overwhelming demand and support from thousands of residents who have downloaded the app, and drivers looking to meet that need. Now is the time for state officials to embrace innovation, support powerful job creation, and stand with the people of Nevada who need them most.”
This morning at 5:00 a.m., Las Vegas joined the more than 200 cities worldwide served by rideshare service Uber. If you download the Uber app to your iOS or Android phone right now, you’ll see hundreds of Uber cars cruising around on Vegas’ streets, waiting for you to call one up. And it’s not just Las Vegas; today, the company launches operations statewide, which means that Carson City, Reno, Henderson, Summerlin and North Las Vegas have been invited to the party, too.
In local circles, the wait for Uber long ago supplanted Godot. Vegas newcomers—Bay Area and Los Angeles transplants, mostly—speak of it as a kind of magical entity, and with good reason: There’s perhaps no better way to hail a ride across town. All you need to do is download the app, put a credit card on file, and simply call up rides from your phone. When you request a car from Uber, you’re given a to-the-minute arrival time and quoted a fare—something that your average taxicab company either can’t or won’t do. You card is automatically charged, and you can even rate the driver once the ride is done.
I’ve tried Uber myself. I used it on a recent trip out-of-state and was very nearly creeped out by the seeming prescience of it. I don’t think I waited longer than five minutes for a car, oftentimes as little as two. And the fares are so much cheaper than the standard taxi meter-drop that I’m not at all surprised that the Nevada Taxicab Authority wants Uber out of the state, and preferably off the planet.
Uber is, to my mind, a transformative urban presence. It has the potential to take a ton of drunk drivers off our roads. But I understand if you’re leery of it, or think it’s a scam. I asked two representatives from Uber’s communications team, Lane Kasselman and Eva Behrend, to define the limits of the service and to clear up a few misconceptions.
Uber is not a taxi company.
“There’s no cash involved, there’s no street hail, and we’re not launching on the Strip,” Kasselman says. The latter omission isn’t a concession to the Taxicab Authority (“though on the surface, it may look like that,” he says), but a matter of logistics: Uber doens’t want its cars to get mired in the traffic of the average Strip property’s porte-cochère. “We would rather work with the hotels and casinos in developing a strategy for how it makes sense before just doing it and tying up traffic,” Kasselman says. Airport pickups aren’t happening just yet for similar reasons. (That said, Uber cars can drop you off at Strip properties. They just can’t pick you up from there just yet.)
Be prepared for a slow, deliberate rollout.
Although there are hundreds of drivers on the streets even now, it’s going to take a while for the app to figure out Las Vegas. “The algorithm has to calibrate,” Kasselman says. “It actually has to figure out where the supply is, where demand is greater.” Meaning: If you open the app right now, you might see several cars within a minute of your location, but there might be a 20-minute waiting time. That will pass, says Kasselman: “The system is just learning how to be efficient.”
Uber’s drivers and cars are thoroughly vetted.
Potential Uber drivers need a four-door car that’s a 2005 model or newer, Behrend says. And that’s just the beginning: “The car needs to pass a 19-point vehicle inspection by a third party like Meineke,” Behrend says, adding, “After that, drivers need to submit to a background check.” That background check encompasses the local, state and federal levels, and it includes a look at driving records, criminal records and the sex offender registry. And there’s “zero tolerance” for drunk drivers, she says: “If you have that on your record, you’re automatically prohibited from accessing the platform as a driver-partner.” More information about Uber’s background checks can be found here, and information on Uber’s $1 million-per-trip insurance is here.
Uber’s rates should be lower than Vegas’ taxicabs.
“In every market we go into, we analyze the cab rates in that market,” Behrend says. “Generally speaking, we’re 10 to 20 percent cheaper than the cabs.”
Uber doesn’t want to put Las Vegas’ taxis out of business.
“It’s important to look at it like a transportation ecosystem,” Kasselman says. “We hope that [Nevada’s cab companies] are looking at it the same way. You can ride a bike, you can take a bus, you can take a taxi, you can take your own car … and now, there’s another alternative.”
Whether Nevada’s cab companies are actually looking at it that way seems doubtful, at least right now. But there’s no denying that this town is only getting bigger—more residents, more visitors, more conventions. To accommodate that growth, we’ll need a transportation solution that includes everything from increased bus service to light rail to, yes, taxicabs. The coming of Uber is only a piece of that puzzle, but it’s a welcome one.