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Changing Columbus

Story: Jay Panandiker, Images: Moyu Konishi

In the era of the smartphone, students can use apps to order almost anything—a burrito, a textbook or even a car. Uber, an app which provides vehicles-for-hire, celebrated its two year Columbus anniversary in December, as well as its two-millionth rider in Central Ohio earlier this year.

Columbus was the first city in Ohio that the ride-sharing company entered in 2013. Uber spokesperson Lauren Altmin says the company’s growth in the city has been remarkable. The success allowed Uber to expand into eight other markets within the state of Ohio. She also added that in Columbus there are hundreds of drivers and thousands of riders coming together for thousands of trips every week.

Altmin says Columbus is one of Uber’s more mature cities in the central region, which includes the Midwest, Texas and Canada. Despite Columbus being smaller than many cities on the East and West coasts, Uber did not have to change the rollout strategy or the product.

“People need to still get from a to b and additional options benefit the community in many ways—whether it be from giving them another option for getting around or another option for earning a flexible income,” states Altmin.

Operating near Ohio State has also helped the company gain a sizeable number of student drivers. Altmin believes the flexible schedule that Uber offers is a draw for students. She added that 80 percent of Uber drivers nationwide listed flexibility as their most important reason for driving. She added that while Uber is not just for students, the demographic tends to be early adopters of the app so the university’s presence did have an impact. “Like in many other cities, Uber is most often used on weekend nights around bar closing times,” Altmin explains. “But there is also heavy usage in Columbus during Ohio State football games.” According to data released by the company in December, wait times for a ride near the university are often less than ten minutes. Data indicates that most of Uber’s dropoffs are in the University District and Downtown.

Uber plans on adding 10,000 new drivers across Ohio, including 3,000 in Columbus within the next year. Altmin says the company uses a multi-pronged approach in order to attract new drivers. In Columbus, Uber works with the Franklin County Economic Development office to host recruitment events.

“These are more informational sessions for people who are thinking about potentially partnering with Uber to get more information,” she says. “If they like what they hear they can start the process on site.”

Altmin says growing in Columbus involves going into the community and telling the company’s story. While Uber may be well known to the people who already use the app, a lot of people still have yet to adopt the platform. She added that while the goal is ambitious, the company believes that the consumer demand is growing enough to support it. “Drivers in Columbus tend to be a mix of those who use Uber as their primary source of income and those for whom it is a second job,” Altmin states. Nationally, 50 percent of drivers drive less than ten hours a week.

Columbus was one of the first cities to pass an ordinance addressing Uber and other ride-sharing services. Lyft, Uber’s major national competitor, left the Columbus market earlier this year, citing burdensome municipal regulations. In mid-December, the Ohio Senate passed H.B. 237, which created statewide regulation of ride-sharing that would supercede any municipal regulations. The bill, which was signed in late-December by Governor John Kasich, sets minimum insurance standards and background check requirements for drivers. It also requires ride-sharing companies to pay a fee to the Ohio Public Utilities Commission to use a digital network to arrange for the connection between drivers and riders. Uber supports the statewide legislation.

“We applaud the Ohio legislature’s openness to consumer and economic choice with the passage of HB 237,” the company said in an official statement. “Since our launch in Columbus in 2013, we have been committed to providing additional options to riders and flexible earning opportunities for drivers across the state.”

Uber is also expanding its services beyond ride-sharing. Uber Eats, which is currently available in a limited number of US cities, is similar to GrubHub or OrderUp in that drivers pick up food from a select list of restaurants and deliver it to customers. Uber Rush, which is currently only available in San Francisco, Chicago and New York, offers a delivery service for everyday products. Both UberEats and UberRush both just expanded outside of the pilot project stage, but there are no immediate plans for the new services in Columbus. Uber does offer two specialty services in Columbus—UberX and UberBlack. The former offers low-cost ridesharing while UberBlack utilizes more upscale cars.

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