Car rides ordered through apps rolling into Fresno market

The Fresno BeeJune 28, 2014 

A pair of San Francisco-based on-demand car ride services often seen in Boston and Chicago are offering their alternative services in Fresno.

Both Uber and Lyft are operated completely through their apps, which can be downloaded on Apple or Android phones. Riders request a driver and pay their fare through the apps, which already have their credit card information upon signing up.

Uber describes itself as a company that connects riders with drivers, but is essentially a cab company. The company was valued at $18.2 billion by investors and has hired more than 100 drivers in Fresno managed by an app.

"The taxi industry hasn't changed for the better part of a century and people are really into this idea that you push a button and get a ride," said Spencer Rinkus, the company's San Francisco marketing manager.

Uber launched its Fresno presence in February and has been well received, according to Rinkus, who said that weekends are the busiest time for local drivers rather than weekdays.

"Fresno has almost been like a sandbox for us," Rinkus said. "We can set up more long-term partnerships and try things out."

Lyft and Uber riders can be picked up anywhere in the Fresno area. Once in the car, riders can ask drivers to go to Visalia, Madera or even as far as Las Vegas. Uber has a fare-quote feature to see approximately how much the trip will cost before you enter the car. However, drivers do have the option to decline driving someone to Las Vegas.

Fresno riders can expect to pay a $3 base fare plus 30 cents per minute and $1.80 per mile, according to the Uber Fresno website. Minimum fare is $7 and there is a $5 cancellation fee.

Competitor Lyft charges slightly less than Uber. Lyft's fares include $1.60 per mile, 30 cents per minute, and a $2.50 pick-up fee with a $6 minimum.

At those rates, a 20 minute, 10-mile ride from Fresno Yosemite International Airport to River Park would cost $27 through Uber and $24.50 on Lyft.

Lyft, which operates in nearly 70 cities throughout the country, launched in Fresno in April.

"We want to provide a new transportation option that gives a sense of community," according to Katie Dally, a communications specialist with Lyft. "We are using technology to create a connection offline."

To break into the market, Uber teamed up with local businesses. The Fresno Grizzlies minor league baseball team worked with Uber to send car service users to games for free with transportation provided by Uber. They also partnered with Dog House Grill for free delivery of tri-tip sandwiches.

Companies like Uber and Lyft have drawn unwanted attention for insurance issues, assault charges against drivers, and conflicts with taxi unions. None of that has presented itself in Fresno, according to city spokesman Mark Standriff.

Local cab companies contacted by The Bee did not respond to requests for comment.

The California Public Utilities Commission warned Uber drivers not to operate at airports without permission. However, some continue to do so in San Francisco. There have not been any reported issues at Fresno Yosemite International Airport.

Uber is also facing a lawsuit claiming that drivers are employees and not independent contractors as the company says. If they are employees, Uber must cover drivers' expenses — like gas, insurance and car maintenance — and allow drivers to collect tips.

A federal judge told Uber it must explain to drivers how to opt out of mandated arbitration, which would allow drivers to take issues to court.

Ellen Ward, a Fresno native, has been an Uber driver since the service's launch in the city. Ward worked full time as a safety director for Quali-t-Ruck Service Co. based in Fresno, but "ubers" on the weekends.

"I wanted to make some extra cash," said Ward, who said that she originally saw Uber on social media about a year ago. "I'm in a lot of weddings this year and they're draining my wallet."

Ward is considered an independent contractor with Uber and can decline jobs if she doesn't want to work or doesn't feel safe. She's only canceled one ride due to safety concerns. It was at 11 p.m. with pick-up at the Fresno Fairgrounds.

"I have never been fearful," said Ward about strangers getting into her car. "I feel like the caliber of people that use Uber is better."

Mainly, Ward said she picks up party-goers or college kids, but has had lawyers and businessmen catch a ride.

Arielle Ballard, also from Fresno, started using Uber in April as a way to get home safely from bars or parties. Her main concern was risking a DUI since she said she doesn't see too many taxis in Fresno and Clovis.

Ballard said she tried using Lyft, distinguishable by its pink-mustached cars, but said Lyft took longer and its drivers weren't as friendly or reliable.

"We're not a big taxi town," said Ballard. "(Uber) is almost like a friend picking you up and taking you home from the bar. That's what it feels like."

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6279, htraceynoren@fresnobee.com or @HtraceyNoren on Twitter.

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