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Status of the sharing economy: Uber rides easy in Grand Rapids

Mike waits for his next rider.

One year after its arrival in town, Grand Rapids drivers and riders have largely embraced Uber. In the last of a three-part series on the sharing economy, writer Lauren Carlson wades through the rate changes, tipping controversy, and demographic shifts in ridership to hear from the drivers themselves about what it's like to provide the service here.
An easy ride: Uber continues to grow in GR     
Lauren F. Carlson
 
In the new sharing economy, cars are no exception, allowing drivers and riders to share commutes, errand runs or the much-needed ride home from the bar. One year ago, international sensation Uber set up shop in Grand Rapids with no legal regulation. Setting itself apart from the traditional taxi cab service, this app provides income for auto-owning drivers and an easy transportation choice for anyone with a smart phone and a credit card. After one year, use of the app on both fronts continues to grow in the city, even as drivers and Uber staff continue to work out the kinks.
           
"I just like to drive," says Mike, age 30, part-time Uber driver. Encouraged by his wife to try driving for the company as a way to supplement his full-time income, Mike soon found that he simply enjoyed driving and meeting new people.
 
"It turned out to be a fun hobby for sure," he says. "Meeting all sorts of people is definitely interesting." Driving all over greater Grand Rapids but favoring signature spots, Mike's favorite is the Little Mexico Cafe on Stocking Ave. "There's a lot of requests that come from the west side of GR," he says.
           
When he first began driving just before Thanksgiving of 2014, he noticed that the majority of his clientele were in their twenties and thirties. Now, he has noticed a shift, with those in their forties, fifties and sixties also utilizing the service. "A little bit of the older generation has started using Uber," he says.
 
Mike attributes the diverse span of riders to the perceived value of the service. The young, he thinks, utilize Uber because it's quick, easy and utilizes their handy-dandy smart phones. The older, in contrast, may request an Uber ride for peace of mind and a new experience. However, "no matter what the trip is," says Mike, "it's cheaper than a DUI," noting what he believes is users' main reason for requesting a ride.
           
The cheap rides can mean big bucks for drivers, and Mike found that the service definitely supplemented his income…at first. However, after two GR rate decreases (the first in January and the second in April, overall decreasing from $1 to about 75 cents per mile), Mike and others have reaped less reward and grown somewhat frustrated with the app.
 
Mike White, general manager of Uber Michigan, reasons that the rate decreases were designed to increase traffic. "When you reduce the price for service, you get more usage of the service," he says. Allowing drivers to complete more trips per hour, White argues, actually earns them more fares, and thus more money, per night. Uber expressed positivity for this increased efficiency in their blog post in July of this year. Despite the positioning of the rate decreases, other drivers are also second-guessing the model, and even changing the frequency of their rides.
           
"The second rate cuts that took place in April have made it not viable to drive for me except on weekend nights," says Bryan, 45, who works a full-time job while also driving 40 hours per week for Uber. Splitting his time between Grand Rapids and Chicago, Bryan now favors the latter, finding it much more financially viable. "I drive here significantly less and spend more time driving in Chicago," he says. In addition, "The lack of a tipping feature on the app and the false belief among riders that they shouldn't tip their drivers has also hurt," says Bryan.
           
The inability to tip within the app is also a point of contention among Uber drivers. With a cash payment or a separate card reader as the only option for tipping, driver Mike feels that the topic creates an awkward conversation that ruins the flow of the ride. "I don't expect any tips but tips are always appreciated," he says.
 
Regarding the tipping option provided by other ride services such as Lyft, Mike White comments, "People love the cashless, seamless experience," implying that tipping would interrupt an otherwise easy transaction. In addition, he notes that the rating of both riders and drivers allows for a transparent feedback loop that maintains the quality of the service and renders tipping unnecessary. Regardless of the company's stance, drivers like Mike contend that tipping is "one of the most requested features."
           
Despite rate decreases and the tipping issue, Uber continues to grow in Grand Rapids, attracting both drivers and riders. "GR has been a tremendous market for us," says Mike White who, without giving exact numbers, notes that the app has seen thousands using the platform since it launched. "We're excited about the progress we've made in the past year," he continues, mentioning that Grand Rapids has experienced a similar growth path as metro Detroit.
           
Drivers continue to have a largely positive experience as well, regardless of how much of their income can be supplemented, on which nights of the week, and with or without tips. "Overall, my experience with Uber has been positive," says Bryan. "Selecting one's own working hours provides a lot of flexibility."
 
Echoes Mike, "I have had a positive experience driving." Though "it's not a great full time job," he says, "I will continue to do it until it stops being fun."

Lauren F. Carlson is a freelance writer and editor, Aquinas alumna, and Grand Rapids native. Her work can be found at www.emptyframecreative.com, and she can be reached at lauren@emptyframecreative.com for story tips and feedback.
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