Uber now taxiing in Northeastern Pennsylvania

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First Posted: 2/9/2015

Barely two days after news broke that Uber was researching market opportunities locally for its smart phone-based ride sharing program, it was here.

Uber Technologies Pennsylvania General Manager Jon Feldman announced in a Feb. 6 morning teleconference that Uber was to begin service in Scranton and Wilkes-Barre at 5 p.m. that night.

The San Francisco-born company that has expanded to some 270 cities in 54 countries launched in a service area stretching from Hanover Township to just north of Carbondale.

On the southern edge of the area service is to be available from Mountain Top to the Back Mountain, though a map on the website doesn’t quite reach Harveys Lake. Further north it runs from Moscow to Falls in Wyoming County.

Feldman said the company has about 100 people signed up as “partners” who will provide rides using their own vehicles to those who seek one through the app, though he noted the drivers decide when they are available. As an introduction, the company is offering two free rides worth up to $25 each until 11:59 p.m. Feb. 16, Presidents Day.

The service being introduced here is UberX, in which the drivers, who are subject to a seven-year background check, use their own cars and pay for their own vehicles. All fares are paid through the app via credit card or PayPal using an account set up when the rider registers with Uber.

There are no tips, and the app allows a prospective rider to see the total cost of an anticipated trip before booking service.

Locally, the base rate is $2 plus 25 cents per minute and $1.75 per mile, with a minimum charge of $5, Feldman said. And though they didn’t mention it until asked, Feldman and spokeswoman Kaitlin Durkosh confirmed the company’s “dynamic pricing” would be in place here.

Rates and useage

Uber uses a computer algorithm to raise fares when demand grows.

The theory is that more partners will be willing to make themselves available when fares are higher. Critics have likened the practice to price gouging.

A Jan. 10 New York Times article cited examples in which the price for a a ride to and from the same places cost as much as eight times more during high-demand times.

“It’s important to know this dynamic pricing is an algorithm that automatically kicks in,” Durkosh said. “We’re very transparent with our dynamic pricing model, it is repeatedly described in the app, and riders have to confirm it before any ride takes place. They also receive a detailed receipt with a breakdown of the exact fare.”

There’s another advantage to the dynamic pricing structure, Feldman said. In places where the price goes up near bar closing time on popular holidays, “we’ve seen the DUI rates go down. It gives people an alternative to driving drunk.”

Feldman estimated base rates are about 15 percent lower than local taxi fares. He cited a ride from Mohegan Sun Casino to the University of Scranton, costing about $40 from Uber versus $50 by taxi.

Feldman stressed the advantages the smartphone app offers, including letting the rider track the approach of the car on a phone map via GPS.

“If it’s raining you can wait inside until you see your ride pull up.” The app also provides the driver name, license plate number and make and model of the car so the rider can be sure it’s the ride expected.

Fare splitting

The app allows multiple riders to split the fare, each paying their share through their account. And it allows a rider to text a link to someone waiting for them, so that person can track the progress of the ride.

And both driver and rider can offer instant feedback via the app after a ride. If feedback is particularly negative, Uber can block a person from using the app, Durkosh said.

Uber insures riders from pickup to drop-off for up to $1 million in primary insurance, Feldman said, and provides primary insurance coverage up to $125,000 per incident “from when a driver is on the app but has not yet picked anyone up.” Both are higher than required by Pennsylvania law for taxis, he added.

“Our commitment is to be the safest ride on the road,” Feldman said.