Ride-sharing app Uber launches statewide with celebration in Missoula

Until 6:15 p.m. Monday, Montana was one of only three states in the country, along with Wyoming and Alaska, where you couldn’t hail a ride on a transportation network company like Uber.

But that all changed when state Rep. Ellie Boldman-Hill Smith, a Democrat from Missoula, became Uber’s “Passenger Zero” and took a ceremonial trip from the official launch party at Plonk, a wine bar downtown.

Missoula was chosen as the location for the company’s much-anticipated arrival party, but by the end of the this week, Uber is expected to be available statewide. In smaller rural towns, however, it will depend on drivers signing up to make it accessible to customers.

Uber, a ride-sharing service, works by allowing people to become independent contractors and use their own vehicles to provide rides. Customers order up a lift using an app on their mobile devices. Until Monday, the only taxi services in Missoula were Yellow Cab and Green Taxi.

During the legislative session last spring, Boldman-Hill Smith worked with Republicans Sen. Ed Buttrey of Great Falls, Rep. Austin Knudsen of Culbertson and Rep. Daniel Zolnikov of Billings to get a bill in front of Governor Steve Bullock that deregulated motor carrier laws in the state. It also eliminated a requirement that gave existing taxi services the ability to protest new companies in front of the Public Service Commission.

“Taxicabs had a 100-year monopoly and that’s why consumers were losing in Montana,” Boldman Hill-Smith explained. “This bill was never just about Uber. It was about letting entrepreneurs compete on the open market. Until this bill, the existing cab companies had essentially veto power over new businesses, which is just absurd, regardless of your politics.”

Even a shuttle bus business that proposed to ferry skiers and snowboarders to Big Sky Resort was protested by existing cab companies in the past, Boldman Hill-Smith said, and this bill will allow those types of entrepreneurs to compete for customers.

Boldman Hill-Smith, who represents the University district and portions of downtown, said her major impetus for sponsoring the bill was to cut down on drunk driving by giving people another option to get home at night.

“A lot of bar owners and restaurant owners heard from customers who have to wait two to three hours to get a cab ride from downtown Missoula,” she said. “The Missoula City-County DUI Taskforce supported the bill, and from a pure economic standpoint, a free enterprise standpoint, it had a lot of bipartisan support.”

Brian Gebhardt, the general manager of Uber Montana, was in Missoula on Monday for the official launch party at Plonk.

“It’s been a lot of work,” he said. “By the end of this week we’ll be live in the entire state, not just in the big cities. And so the limiting factor is just going to be interest by drivers.

“If drivers have reached out, signed up and gone through the onboarding process and gotten approved, we can start the process of giving rides in Hamilton or Drummond or Wolf Point or wherever.”

Gebhardt declined to share how many drivers have signed up, but he said the company feels comfortable that anyone who wants a ride will be able to get one.

“We’ve seen a lot of excitement from drivers and a lot of engagement,” he said. “We think we have what we need to provide safe rides for folks.”

Gebhardt said he won’t know how much an average Uber driver makes an hour in Missoula or Montana until the stats from the first few months get recorded.

“Every city is different, but we feel pretty confident that they’ll make enough that they’ll be happy with the opportunity,” he said.

Gebhardt said that there also won’t be a problem with having enough drivers wanting to be ready after 2 a.m. to give intoxicated people a ride from bars to their homes.

“Typically, the drivers we talk to are interested when they know there’ll be demand,” he said. “They’re willing to drive late at night knowing they won’t have to wait too long between rides, versus driving in the middle of the day and maybe having to wait 20 or 30 minutes.”

Read the article here. http://missoulian.com/news/local/ride-sharing-app-uber-launches-statewide-with-celebration-in-missoula/article_a5f0cf03-32ba-531f-95e4-0c91d2268ac5.html