Flags up for Uber, Lyft drivers after gov signs bill

  • Long-time Alaskan David O’Malley has worked as a taxi driver and in the transportation industry for more than 20 years in Anchorage. Now, he’s one of Uber’s first approved drivers, an independent contractor who began offering rides on June 16. At 61, this job gives him the flexibility of near-retirement, and lets him control his hours, he said. (Photo/Naomi Klouda/AJOC)

Uber and Lyft drivers took to the roads in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau this week, newly authorized to offer rides after a bill approving the transportation network companies was signed into law.

Gov. Bill Walker signed House Bill 132 on June 15. The bill had an immediate effective date, allowing the companies to start operating as soon as it was signed. Both had dozens of pre-approved drivers ready to start.

Interest in driving for Uber drew more than 100 people in a single day to start the application process at Anchorage Chamber of Commerce headquarters on Fourth Avenue.

“The line went out the door and down the street,” said new Uber driver David O’Malley, one of the first to be approved.

He started giving rides on Friday after 3 p.m., the official launch time for Uber in Anchorage. Fairbanks followed with a 3 p.m. June 19 launch, and Juneau on June 21.

Lyft passengers will be able to use the code LYFTLOVE17 to receive $5 off their first ride, which can be entered under promo code. Scott Coriell, communications director for Lyft, said the service provides new opportunities for those looking to make extra income and it’s good for the economy in cities where they operate.

He emphasized that each driver is an independent contractor, not a Lyft employee.

Alaska, the last state to authorize transportation network companies, or TNCs, has a bit more detail planning to work the new transportation option into tourism season traffic spots. In Juneau, that process started weeks ago, even though the governor hadn’t yet signed the bill.

The concern about extra vehicles at the cramped Juneau docks was hammered out early on with Uber officials. Juneau has an unusual situation: four or five cruise ships at a time and 17,000 visitors a day disembarking for capital city excursions takes careful orchestration on the part of dock officials and transportation companies.

Add to that a tiny two-way Franklin Street as the only in-and-out of two public docks where four ships berth, and you can have chaos in no time, said Carl Uchytil, port director at Juneau Docks &Harbors. To stay ahead of potential chaos, stakeholders met at City Manager Rorie Watt’s office for a call-in meeting with Uber officials.

“In the call-in, we talked about concerns with the downtown port area and the potential for congestion,” Uchytil said. “They were accommodating, saying they would work with us as far as set locations for pickup and dropoffs. At the time, Uber didn’t know the lay-down of Juneau and how we have such a surge of traffic when cruise ships come in.”

Travel Juneau, the city’s non-profit convention and visitor’s bureau, has welcomed the transportation companies.

“We are supportive of any service that provides efficient, practical transportation for our visitors,” said Liz Perry, Travel Juneau president and executive director. “I think for Juneau in general there are times when getting taxis can be problematic. That said, I’m glad our city leadership are working with Uber and Lyft on appropriate dropoffs and pickups.”

Like protests of the new TNC companies at work in Anchorage, Juneau also had its groups who didn’t want them. Objections came from the taxi operators who see themselves under a more onerous regulation system. They also came from the Alaska Municipal League because municipalities cannot regulate TNCs with local ordinances other than the ability to levy a sales tax on rides.

Now the hope is that all transporters will pull together and serve the community and visitor needs ahead, Perry said.

“We didn’t take a position on either side of the issue,” Perry said.

At Visit Anchorage, Julie Saupe, president and chief executive of Visit Anchorage, sees a definite role to be filled by the new TNCs.

“As the city’s destination marketing arm, we welcome the transportation network companies,” Saupe said. “It’s an amenity that visitors, whether here for business or pleasure, have come to expect.”

A smartphone app is used to hail a ride through Uber or Lyft. If it’s downloaded on your phone along with your payment information, a deduction can be made when the ride is finished. The rider lets the app know a location, and the app shows drivers are in the area who can respond. No waiting on street corners; no making phone calls; no cash exchange except tips, although Uber has now added the option to tip through its app.

Saupe said meeting planners ask if companies like Uber and Lyft operate in Anchorage because they have delegates who are accustomed to these services and have corporate accounts set up in advance. Independent visitors have also come to expect ridesharing as a convenient, and known, option.

“We have let both Uber and Lyft know about our resources — from visitor guides to event calendars and phone numbers for our visitor information centers. In the end, I believe we have similar goals in mind — creating positive experiences and valuing repeat customers,” she said.

As incentive for Anchorage passengers, Uber was giving away four $5 rides between June 16-19. On June 20, Uber hosted a celebration launch at 49th State Brewing Co. in Anchorage where they awarded a year of free trips for Sam Moore of Anchorage, who is legally blind. He paid his way to Juneau several times to lobby for the approval of the TNC legislation.

David O’Malley started as an Uber driver in 2014 when just a handful of drivers were operating in Anchorage. Uber had offered free rides to get Anchorage consumers familiar with its brand.

This will be Lyft’s first experience working in Alaska. Uber was active for about six months in 2014-15 in Anchorage before a Department of Labor and Workforce citation shut down Uber in the state for not carrying workers’ compensation insurance on its drivers and resulted in a fine of $77,925. As part of the settlement the company agreed not to come back to Alaska unless state law authorized the use of independent contractors for TNCs.

The company offered rides for free in Anchorage during its initial launch because under city taxi laws it wasn’t allowed to charge customers.

During that time, several Uber drivers gained experience. David O’Malley was one of the drivers.

“It was free for everyone for the whole six months as we were trying to build up a business. It got crazy,” O’Malley recalled. “We were going down to the shelters. People there calling us for rides. Going back and forth to the Valley. Some were keeping us outside as they shopped. One driver went all the way to Fairbanks to take a ride there.”

Consumers weren’t just getting familiar; they were taking advantage of a free thing, he said.

“We got paid for it by Uber,” he said.

When the bill allowing TNCs to operate in Alaska passed, O’Malley said he was eager to get back into providing the service. He had liked the company and how it operates, as well as the job freedom to work when he wanted and stay home when he didn’t.

He owns two cars, one a luxury Toyota model and the other a smaller energy efficient Ford Fusion.

“I’ll need the nicer one for certain kinds of trips,” he said.

The timing is great, just as the peak tourist season begins.

“Hopefully, it will be steady,” he said.

Naomi Klouda can be reached at [email protected]

06/21/2017 - 12:53pm