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Along for the ride: Uber and Lyft drivers help to meet transportation demand

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Connor Braaten heads to a more central part of Grand Forks to wait for potential riders for either Uber or Lyft on Friday. (Jesse Trelstad/Grand Forks Herald)2 / 5
Connor Braaten checks his Uber and Lyft apps while waiting in a parking lot on Friday in Grand Forks. (Jesse Trelstad/Grand Forks Herald)3 / 5
Connor Braaten, who drives for both Lyft and Uber, posts logos to his front windshield to better identify himself to riders. (Jesse Trelstad/Grand Forks Herald)4 / 5
Connor Braaten supplies bottles of water and a medical bag in the side compartment of each door just in case a rider has an accident. (Jesse Trelstad/Grand Forks Herald)5 / 5

On Thursday and Saturday nights, Connor Braaten works double duty.

Braaten works for both ridesharing services Uber and Lyft, which began operations a few weeks ago, launching their separate services within a week of each other.

At any moment of the day, anyone can open the app on their smartphone and see how many drivers are operating and how long it would take to get picked up.

Each driver is represented as a car on the streets of a city map.

Braaten graduated from UND in December with a degree in marketing. While he's searching for his first job, he drives part time for the two services.

Lyft was the first to enter the Grand Forks market on Feb. 23. Braaten signed up that day to be a driver for the service.

He provided his insurance and registration information, showed he met the requirements for the age and body type of his car and passed the company's background check.

By that weekend, he was approved to begin accepting riders. He said about 75 percent of his customers are college students.

While some cab companies have complained that city-registered taxi drivers have to meet more stringent requirements than rideshare drivers, Braaten said the rideshare requirements are comparable to city regulations.

"We're pretty much held to the same standards they are," Braaten said.

The rideshares may not have had a huge impact on the local city-registered cab companies, at least as far as demand for rides.

Tasha Cash, manager of Grand Forks Taxi, said rideshare services may impact smaller cab companies in town, but she hasn't seen any decrease in call volume at the business she manages.

"Right now, I'm riding five deep. All our drivers are filled," she said on a weekday morning.

Repeated calls to the taxi service got a busy signal before a call went through.

Ride ratings

Through the rideshare apps, riders and drivers can rate each other, allowing either customer or driver to refuse a ride if the rating is low.

Braaten gets a weekly summary of his customers' comments in his email.

"Absolutely amazing," said one rider. "Friendly and professional," said another.

He said, so far, his experiences with riders have been almost entirely positive.

"I haven't had any big problems," he said.

He had one rider who gave him an uneasy feeling, but otherwise all of his customers have been easy to work with so far.

He keeps hospital bags in his car, just in case a ride home from a bar results in an unwanted accident.

The company can charge riders should they vomit or cause some damage to the car, but Braaten said he'd still have to take the time and endure the unpleasantness of cleaning it up.

"I'd be done for the night," he said.

So far, no one has used the bags.

Though, he said the first question he gets from people about being a rideshare driver is what to do about those kinds of accidents.

The second most popular question is how to sign up to be a driver.

Cash said her drivers get repeat riders all the time, and the drivers make it a point to get to know their customers. It's not uncommon, she said, for riders to request drivers by name.

Another option

Brandon Beyer, UND student body president, had lobbied Uber for months to start operations in Grand Forks, using student surveys and other data to show the potential for the market.

He said transportation options are vital to a healthy local economy.

The market research he and others initiated measured when students would use the service, if it were available. One of the most popular reasons to use rideshares was a designated-driver option after drinking at local bars.

"That's not something we shied away from," Beyer said. "I've heard time and time again of students using (Uber and Lyft) to get home safely."

The rideshare services use variable pricing to charge for the rides, which increases with greater demand.

While this means higher charges when people need rides the most, such as after bars close, the higher pay provides an incentive for more drivers to work when demands are highest.

Braaten said the highest rates he's seen were just less than $27, and that was for a Miranda Lambert concert.

He said the two services work pretty much the same, with only superficial differences. Lyft, he said, allows riders to tip drivers, whereas Uber does not.

"That's the big one for Lyft," he said.

But Uber allows riders to pick up people in East Grand Forks. Lyft allows people to be dropped off in East Grand Forks, but riders cannot be picked up in East Grand Forks.

Beyer said the companies have seen a good volume of people signing up to be drivers.

"We're really impressed with the quick turnaround," he said.

He's looking at building partnerships with the company. These would provide more promotional codes, which allow riders to get special discounts. These could be associated with events or certain riders to get them to use the service.

He's also looking at ways to help Uber pitch the employment opportunities to demographics that most likely would be interested—college students and people about 55 years old.

Kevin Killough

Kevin Killough is the business reporter for the Grand Forks Herald. You can reach him with story tips, comments and ideas at 701-780-1244.