Ride-sharing system cruises into Vancouver

Uber has proven popular in other cities, nations

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Uber has arrived in Vancouver.

The rapidly growing ride-sharing app soft-launched here last week and is actively recruiting drivers. The company, which has been in Seattle for about three years, is expanding its reach in Washington, Brooke Steger, general manager of Uber Seattle, said.

“I think we’re just really excited to be in Vancouver,” she said. “It’s a great city.” And the goal is to spread and make sure “no matter where you are in Washington, you can use Uber.”

Anyone looking for a ride from Vancouver can use the app.

“You push a button, the car comes by and picks you up,” Steger said. There is no need to tip as no cash transactions occur. Everything is done online. “It creates a very stress-free environment for both the driver and the rider.”

But the service has one gaping hole in its coverage, as well as a big question mark: the city of Portland does not allow Uber to operate there, so someone wanting to use the service from Vancouver to Portland will need to find another way home. And it’s unclear whether the company is operating legally even in Vancouver.

No one from Uber contacted anyone at City Hall, city Treasurer Carrie Lewellen said Wednesday, and it’s unclear whether Uber needs a taxi license. Current codes regarding vehicles for hire don’t address companies such as Uber, she said.

Unlike taxis, the Uber vehicles don’t have meters. The company may be more comparable to flat-rate chauffeur services, which are only regulated by the state. Lewellen said city staff will research the issue and make a recommendation to City Manager Eric Holmes if the vehicle for hire code needs updating. She said the city has no plans to immediately shut Uber down.

Uber, a publicly traded company valued last month at $17 billion, is making waves across the country and globally with services in a growing number of major U.S. cities and 41 countries. With its success has also come criticism from taxi cab companies worried about their own business and state officials warning of possible dangers of the largely unregulated new service.

But Steger points out the city of Seattle recently approved new regulations for Uber that the company is putting into practice in its other Washington locations, which include recently added services in Spokane and Tacoma. The regulations include background checks for drivers, mechanical testing of the cars annually and $1 million insurance for each vehicle when a rider is in the car.

Uber has about 20 drivers in Vancouver so far including Eric Hansen, a semi-retired Vancouver resident. As the first to be accepted, he is driver number “zero” and he is loving his new job.

“This could be big,” he said. “This is, you know, the new generation.”

Hansen first heard of Uber from his son, who recently moved to San Francisco, which has its own Uber service. His son suggested the ride-sharing service might be a good idea for Hansen. Then, Uber opened in Vancouver.

“Everything about it just kept clicking with me,” he said. “The simplicity of it. The security. It’s people in your neighborhood. It’s people in your community driving you around.”

The system is simple for those comfortable with smartphone technology. Riders download the app, let Uber locate them by GPS, and request a ride from the nearest driver. Riders can type in their address and destination and get a quote online. Passengers pay for the ride and the tip through their Uber account.

But for a short time, rides are free. Right now Vancouver Uber is temporarily giving up to 10 free rides of leass than $20. Passengers have to pay for longer rides.

Riders rate drivers on a scale of 1 to 5 and drivers do the same of riders. When you pull up a driver on your smartphone or when a driver pulls up a request for a ride, each can see the rate and decide then whether to proceed. Hansen said he received an iPhone that doesn’t make calls except to Uber. He gets online and checks in whenever he wants to offer rides and can decide whether or not he wants to take them.

Hansen has had about 25 rides so far, many to Portland. “Every day I’ve taken at least one person over to Portland,” he said.

But you can’t take Uber back from Portland. Uber tried and failed in December to get the city to change its code to allow Uber to operate as it wanted in the city.

Frank Dufay, regulatory division manager for the city of Portland, said it’s possible the company could come back and find another way to operate in Portland. Other companies also are interested, he said.

“It’s always possible,” he said, adding the city has not heard anything from Uber since last year. “We just want to make sure that the public is safe.”

Steger left that door open.

“It’s something that we might be revisiting in the near future,” she said. “We’ve definitely seen quite a few trips into Portland.”


Stephanie Rice of The Columbian staff contributed to this story.