Uber brings first share-riding service to Breckenridge, Colorado ski towns | SummitDaily.com

Uber brings first share-riding service to Breckenridge, Colorado ski towns

When Uber came looking for drivers in Colorado ski towns, the wildly popular ride-sharing service didn't start with TV spots or freeway billboards or even social media blasts.

Instead, the chatter began quietly on Craigslist.

In early January, Uber announced through a series of online job posts that it's searching for drivers in several High Country markets, including Summit County, Vail, Aspen and Steamboat. It's the sole ride-sharing service to expand beyond big cities and into rural mountain towns, beating competitors like Lyft to a promising new market.

"From the tech perspective, we want to keep an eye on where people are requesting rides and where they aren't available," says Will McCollum, the general manager for Uber Colorado, who notes that the company tracks social media like Twitter and Facebook to determine the best new markets. "When we see a critical amount of inbound requests, that's when we decide it's a good time to expand to a new market. We knew this year would be a good year to make a play for the High Country."

This winter, barely six months after Gov. John Hickenlooper made Colorado the first state to authorize the controversial, paradigm-shifting services, the same Uber app customers use in San Francisco and Berlin now works for local rides in Colorado ski towns. The new law sets strict requirements for drivers, including mandatory vehicle inspections and medical examinations long before a private driver can shuttle clients for cash.

"We're very proud of the legislation that was passed," McCollum says. "This is the first state in the country to pass legislation for ride-sharing, and we wanted to make sure that if we're going to launch in the High Country, we needed to do it right. That legislation gave us what we needed to do that."

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But first come the drivers, and Uber is relying heavily on its reputation to recruit. (As of press time, there are no drivers based in Summit County.) The Craigslist approach is a subdued strategy for a 5-year-old company now valued at $40 billion on the private market — nearly double what Twitter is worth in the public realm — but it promises to pay off in Summit County, where 20-something ski bums and retired professionals alike are constantly scrounging for extra cash.

"I ski and I play and I work about four hours a day, so I'm flexible," says Bill Way, a Summit County resident of nine years who applied for Uber the day he saw the job ad. "This is a good fit for someone like me."

Like the occasional Craigslist post, opponents claim that ride-sharing services are unreliable at best and dangerous at worst. Here's how it works: Customers hail a ride through a smartphone app, similar to calling a taxi service, and drivers respond based on how far they want to drive and how many people they can transport. Fares can vary by the location and time of day, but for out-of-town visitors in need of a ride from Breckenridge to Keystone, it's an alternative to waiting for Summit Stage.

"There's so much tourist traffic, and if people don't want to wait for the bus or figure out a schedule, that's going to be the real benefit of this," Ways says. "It just looks like a very cool system."

For prospective drivers like Way, the biggest perk is freedom: Everyone who drives for Uber is an independent contractor. After passing the pre-hire screening, drivers clock in and out through the app, and their availability is then sent to nearby passengers in search of a ride. There are no set hours, and drivers decide when and where they want to travel — one of the biggest differences between cabbies and ride-sharing employees.

Sheldon Lavis, president of Powderhounds Transportation in Breckenridge, believes Uber won't destroy or bolster his business. It will simply force him to rethink his rates to stay one step ahead of the new app on the block.

"It's bound to happen, I guess," says Lavis, who founded his company in 2008 and now has 35 winter employees. "I use the app when I go to cities, so it's kind of the inevitable. We just need to stay competitive, and they have their niche and we have our niche."

And Uber's niche is rapidly expanding, particularly in Colorado. In December, Uber and Lyft began offering service to Denver International Airport. Both services charge a fee for rides to and from the airport, but there's no limit on how far ride-share drivers can go: A four-hour, one-way ride from DIA to Aspen is fair game, assuming the driver wants to go that far. (Neither Uber nor Lyft reimburse drivers for gas.)

Yet Lavis isn't worried about Uber eating into the bulk of his business, which comes from groups and advanced reservations. Ride-sharing is better suited for on-demand, in-town travel, he believes, and until Uber expands its service beyond the taxi model, he's comfortable with a new competitor.

"I remember when we started in '08, there were zero cabs in Breck," Lavis says. "If they're willing to find drivers up here, that might bring more people to the mountains who wouldn't know how to get around. But at the end of the day, $50 is still $50. It's a little like the airport game — the better price will win."