What It Takes to Lure Uber to Your Small Town

It helps to have a college.

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May 26 2016, 3:30pm

Photo: Beth Coll Anderson/Flickr

A few months ago I had to give up my car for a day in Victoria, Texas while a mechanic worked on my engine.

Victoria, a decently sized burg of around 65,000 people, is one of those sprawly Texas towns where people speak of walking more than a block in the same way they might speak of using an outhouse.

I took out my phone and clicked on the Uber app I still had installed from a recent trip to L.A. Alas, no little black Uber cars crawled over the map. The service wasn't available; never had been. Short of calling a cab, which could take over half an hour to arrive, I was stuck with the lobby's two-year old copy of Newsweek for the day.

The city's name might change, the circumstances may be different, but this kind of scenario could play out in a large number of smaller American cities outside the metropolises where Uber's seen its biggest successes.

Like Victoria, many of these cities have populations that far exceed some of the smallest towns Uber operates in, but even so, the service often isn't there, especially out here far from the east and west coasts. In many cases, it just isn't needed aside from specific cases like my brief exile in the auto body shop. Virtually everyone already has a car as there's no realistic alternative for getting most chores done.

Some smaller towns get Uber coverage just by being near a bigger city. Consider Ottawa, Illinois, which is 80 miles from downtown Chicago. Image: Uber.

How does Uber decide where to offer its service? The company looks at a town's population, of course, but it also looks at factors like the reliability and affordability of existing transportation options, said Billy Guernier, head of Uber's East Coast expansion team.

Uber is also simply concerned with the question of whether it's fulfilling a need, Guernier said. In a town like Victoria, with its humble existing cab services and scant public transportation owing to minimal use, that seems doubtful to me.

If enough people had checked for Uber cars through the app like I did, it's possible the service would be in Victoria, after all. Guernier said Uber looks also looks both at "the number of riders that have opened the app in that city looking for a ride," as well as the number of people who attempt to sign up as drivers in a city that currently isn't covered.

The message I got when I tried to sign up as a driver in the Victoria, Texas area.

And sometimes, he adds, that city could turn out to be a very small one.

"Even in a city like Portsmouth, New Hampshire that has a population of 20,000, we've seen huge growth in the number of people that use and value transportation choices," he said. Uber is also coming to learn that it can still do well in a town that relies on seasonal population growth.

"Unsurprisingly in some beach communities," he said, "we see much more activity in the Summer months."

Guernier didn't say as much, but it also seems to help to be a college town. While Portsmouth might be one of the smallest cities Uber operates out of, it has four substantial colleges, and the University of New Hampshire is only a 13-mile ride away in Durham.

"Here's the catch of driving in a small town: The rides are so short, in fact, many of them never exceed the minimum $4 fare!"

It's a scenario that's repeated again and again on Uber's list of available cities. Take Oxford, Mississippi, with its population of 20,800 and its University of Mississippi; or Ames, Iowa (pop. 61,792), home to Iowa State University. The list goes on for bigger cities with a thriving university system, whether it's Champaign, Illinois (83,424); Asheville, North Carolina (87,236); or many others.

An Uber blog post from February acknowledged this obliquely in its case study of Amherst, Massachusetts (pop. 37,819) as a town where Uber is "helping people get from A to B in areas where driving your own car has traditionally been the only option." Uber, the post states, helps people get around Amherst even when public transportation slows in the weeks when the University of Massachusetts Amherst is out of session.

Image: Uber

There are, however, some notable exceptions. The smallest city I could confirm Uber operates out of is tiny Taos, New Mexico, nestled deep in the Sangre de Cristo mountains, with a population of 5,731.

Much like the college towns, though, Taos is a bastion of high culture with a thriving art scene that draws in tourists and other visitors year-round. And for its size, its Uber scene is hopping. When I checked Taos on my phone at 6:45 last night, three Uber cars were riding the local desert roads. Uber also operates out of remote Gallup, New Mexico, a city of 22,261 in the heart of the Navajo Reservation, but no drivers were available when I checked last night.

Indeed, judging from Uber's own app, the dependability of the service plummets precipitously once you move away from close-knit cities and into the wide blank spaces of the map.

Uber covers some of these areas, where tiny hamlets and huge swaths of farm and ranchland still reign, such as Eastern Washington (a region that doesn't include Spokane, by Uber's reckoning) and Eastern Idaho.

But as you can see in the screenshot below, the prospect of using Uber there is iffy at best. In Idaho, it's apparently possible to have almost 37,000 square miles to work with and not have a single Uber driver to choose from. The same, unfortunately, was true of Eastern Washington.

Image: Uber app.

But Guernier plays up the successes the company is having in small towns that aren't so far removed.

"I think sometimes people assume that Uber is a big city 'thing,' Guernier says, "and so they are surprised when they open their app and see cars. This is becoming less common though."

Much like me in that Victoria auto shop, he notes, more people are wanting to "get a ride at the push of a button" wherever they are. But sometimes the struggle isn't even with spreading awareness that Uber services a city; instead, it's spreading awareness that Uber exists at all. As we said earlier this week, over a third of Americans haven't even heard of the service. That's certainly the case in Victoria, where I had to ask five people before I found someone who didn't think they were misunderstanding me when I said "Uber."

A forum thread from March of last year neatly captures the local situation. When a man from Victoria asks what Uber is, another user describes it as "something the twitter and facebook technotards developed" with "no real regulation." Based on his description (which is more or less accurate in its full form), the original poster concludes that it's a form of hitchhiking.

The key for success in all of these cases, Guernier says, is figuring out how to adapt to the specific needs of currently unserviced locations.

"Different markets have different challenges that require new solutions," he said. "What works in really densely populated cities doesn't work as well in a suburban setting." He pointed me to Uber's carpooling service for the San Francisco Bay Area, which can get passengers from San Jose to San Francisco for just 26 bucks. Given that I once spent almost twice that just to get downtown from the airport, that sounds amazing.

But San Francisco is one thing; "out here" is quite another. Sometimes, in fact, the problem isn't so much enthusiasm from the rider but the frustration of the driver.

Consider a forum post on UberPeople from JaniceCT, who was working as an Uber driver in Connecticut as recently as March of this year. Connecticut certainly isn't Eastern Washington (or South Texas, for that matter), but even there you'll encounter the complications of driving long distances for customers who want short-distance rides.

"Most of my rides now are below $10. That includes rides that req me to drive 10-20 mins to get them," she said at the time. "Not driving 15 mins to take this person 2-3 miles and then have to drive back 15 mins." She added that Uber is popular with students in rural areas, but that she ends up "driving 20 mins just to take them 2 miles away to the nearest pizzeria, Starbucks or some other fast food place." The other drivers in the area claim they've just started ignoring those far-flung quests.

Back in January of last year, another user named Kasra321 expressed her frustrations about being an Uber driver in a small town.

"Here's the catch of driving in a small town: The rides are so short, in fact, many of them never exceed the minimum $4 fare," Kasra said. "Out of $4, $1 goes for safe ride [a fee Uber charges every customer to help pay for its own driver training program, background checks, and vehicle inspections]. Then Uber takes its 20% share from the remaining $3. At the end of the day, you would earn $2.40 for a ride!"

No wonder no one's rushing to become an Uber driver around here. For the foreseeable future, it looks as though I'll be waiting for that cab the next time I put my car in the shop.

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