Ridesharing -- a hassle-free way to enjoy the city -- on the rise

Clevelanders like Steve Pfriem don’t spend much time figuring out the logistics of their memorable Saturday nights. As long as they know where they would like to go and who will be accompanying them, the rest can largely be left up to an app or two on their smartphones.

This shift started nearly a year ago when Uber and Lyft brought their ridesharing services to the Cleveland market in the same week. The San Francisco-based companies each contract with a legion of drivers willing to provide rides around town in their own vehicles at a cost. The actual door-to-door transportation, payment options and mapping are all coordinated by simply tapping the app a few times.

“If you have basic command of what a smartphone can do these days, it’s actually one of the easier things you can do on one,” Pfriem said of using ridesharing apps. “As long as your phone is charged, [you] don’t have many hassles to worry about.”

Pfriem should know -- he has used Uber and Lyft at least a combined 35 to 40 times. The attorney began using the services when he was out of town for business, but now he’s more likely to request an Uber or Lyft from his Gordon Square-area residence to Tremont, Ohio City or Lakewood for a night of fun.

The services mean even more to Jeffrey Sleasman, a downtown resident who does not own a car and is not a bike rider. He takes the RTA’s HealthLine to commute to work, but often uses ridesharing companies when he goes to University Circle or whatever eatery he and his friends have decided on.

“They’re just cheaper and more convenient,” Sleasman said of ridesharing in comparison to taxis. “I can see where they are, how long they’ll take to get there and their exact proximity.”

What’s the Difference?

To be sure, Uber is the king of ridesharing, here and beyond. Uber’s website boasts services in nearly 300 cities, compared to 60 for Lyft. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick said at a 2014 conference in San Francisco that his company had been adding 50,000 drivers per month. A data graph from a January report by Uber shows that the Cleveland area had a rough count of 500 to 1,000 drivers as of November.

A 2014 study from FutureAdvisor that examined the spending habits of 3.8 million credit and debit card holders showed that Uber brought in 12 times the revenue of Lyft from June 2013 to May 2014. Uber also provided more than seven times the amount of rides in that period.

Various media outlets have speculated how much of that money actually goes the driver, especially after the company takes its share and the motorist has to pay for gas, insurance and wear and tear on their car. Critics say Uber and Lyft are putting small cab companies out of business by undercutting them, yet the jobs they provide don't provide any security -- they're just part of the growing "gig economy." 

Despite a couple fare decreases in Cleveland, Uber driver Konstantine Simakis says he is making more than he expected upon starting in August.

He says Uber takes 20 percent of what’s left after $1 is subtracted from each fare for an insurance fund.

“It’s still worth it,” said Simakis, who mostly picks up residents and visitors during busy hours in a new Volkswagen Passat. “It used to be just busy during weekends and Browns games. [Now,] I’m guaranteed an hourly rate of $18 in the morning.”

It’s not uncommon for local hotspots like Lago or large events like the recent Winter Warmer Fest to publicize partnerships and deals with Uber. The company also receives the occasional plug from famous Cleveland natives.

Smaller ridesharing outfits like Sidecar have yet to expand to this region.

Opening both apps can provide a real-time display of the disparity between the availability of Lyft and Uber rides. Lyft, whose drivers sport a large, pink mustache on their front bumpers, can take several more minutes for pickup than Uber, especially the further away you are from the city. Uber now offers four varieties in Cleveland, compared to two for Lyft. Each company offers more spacious and luxurious options beyond their basic rides, but those primary modes—UberX and Lyft—are the most requested.

For UberX, the Cleveland base fare is $1.20, while Lyft charges $1.35. Both require $4 minimum fares. UberX’s combined per-minute and per-mile cost is $1.16, while Lyft charges $1.53. Both have implemented built-in fees to support background checks

“(Ridesharing companies) are much more responsive and spread more logically throughout the city,” Pfriem said. “Cabs are not where people are.”

‘It doesn’t make sense to drive downtown’

Despite their differences, both apps essentially use the same process to get a driver to your door. Once you’ve completed your download and decided to request a ride using either app, you’ll be asked for a credit card or PayPal account for billing. This is useful for folks like Pfriem who don’t always enjoy carrying cash.

“You can go into your email to check your receipt,” Pfriem said. “I like to see how much I spent. Rarely am I surprised, like, ‘damn, it wasn’t worth it.’ Getting around the Westside and downtown, it’s never more than $8 or $9.”

Simakis says people living in the suburbs should consider ridesharing even though they might pay considerably more than somebody like Pfriem.

“It really doesn’t make sense to drive and park downtown in a lot of instances,” Simakis said. “Even in a town like Cleveland where it’s cheap, you’ll still probably pay more.”

Both apps rely on GPS and provide real-time icons on a map that represent the current location of the closest drivers. Users also get an estimate of how long the ride will take and a cost estimate. That helps not only when planning ahead of time, but also in the middle of the night if your group wants to hit another venue.

“If the closest [ride] is five minutes away, we’ll hustle to get our coats on,” Pfriem said.

Riders can split fares amongst their friends on both apps for a $0.25 charge. The apps allow users to connect through Facebook, making it easy to fairly bill all parties.

Both apps have price spikes for their busiest hours, based on demand. Pfriem says his group once waited 20 minutes before reopening Uber to find a slightly lower price.

“Going from Tremont to Gordon Square, it still cost only $13 during the surge,” he recalled, “but that’s pretty reasonable compared to getting a DUI.”

Lyft and Uber both have star-rating systems, encouraging users to rate drivers from one to five stars after the ride. App users can also see a driver’s rating prior to accepting a pickup.

Sleasman noted that tipping is not part of Uber’s payment structure, but users have an opportunity to add money to a Lyft payment if they deem their driver worthy. He wonders if the company is trying to imply something by including this option.

“Are they making enough money without this? Do I have to leave more money,” Sleasman asked. “Uber’s pay structure is cleaner. The driver knows there’s no tip there.”

Simakis says his time behind the wheel for Uber is partially spent as a city tour guide, as about 20 percent of users are people in from out of town. Other times, he finds himself playing the role of “freelance life coach,” listening to personal problems and concerns he usually doesn’t anticipate.

“I’ve had a few Cleveland celebrities—[former Browns lineman] Jason Pinkston and [WEWS NewsChannel 5 weatherman] Jason Nicholas,” he said. “I had a girl who was puking out of the window. I had to pull over at 5 p.m. on a Monday. Not sure what was going on there.”

Constant Controversy

Simakis says ease is one of the greatest benefits in driving for Uber. He estimates that it took less than 24 hours to gain approval to begin driving.

“As long as you have the car and can send in your registration and license photos, it’s a very quick process,” he said.

That process included a background check that Simakis learned he passed via email. The company mailed him a phone with proprietary Uber software later that week. He would hit the road as an Uber driver the same day.

Ridesharing critics around the country say that hasty system likely played a role in high-profile cases like the 2014 arrest of Los Angeles-based Uber driver Frederick Dencer, who was accused of kidnapping a 26-year-old woman with the intent to sexually assault her. The woman wasn’t using the app that night, but wound up in Dencer’s car after a valet asked him to take the intoxicated woman home. A Los Angeles district attorney later wrote that Dencer was released due to a lack of evidence proving a kidnapping or sexual assault and because that victim had since become unavailable.

A wrongful death lawsuit filed against Uber by the family of 6-year old Sofia Liu remains pending in San Francisco as a result of motorist Syed Muzzafar hitting and killing Sofia as she and her family crossed a street. Muzzafar said he was waiting on an Uber fare at the time, but the company maintains that he was not using the app and that he was an independent contractor as opposed to an Uber employee.

The company’s background checks also came under scrutiny when an anonymous Uber driver posted online about the various ways he and others took advantage of the screening process.

So far, there have been no complaints filed against ridesharing companies in Cleveland.

While taxi companies bemoan a regulatory imbalance between themselves and ridesharing firms—Americab Transportation Inc. General Manager Patrick Keenan told Crain’s Cleveland he paid $14,000 in licensing fees for taxis in 2013 alone—some Cleveland residents appear far more interested in the options ridesharing provides.

“I was never concerned about [negative stories],” Sleasman said. “I would have to see some kind of study that showed that Uber riders were somehow less safe than taxi riders.”

If anything, Sleasman is concerned with Uber officials’ brazen comments about Lyft and other competitors. Kalanick admitted in December that he had previously instructed Uber investors to thwart Lyft’s fundraising efforts.

What's the Impact?

Tammy Oliver of Cleveland developer MRN Ltd. and the East Fourth Neighborhood wouldn’t prognosticate the future impact of ridesharing for Cleveland, but said she is glad Uber and Lyft provide more ways for people to patronize MRN’s properties.

“Uber and Lyft, despite the widespread national attention, appear to still be working their way into the mindsets and lives of Clevelanders,” she said via email. “At this point, it is probably too early to tell how important they are to our residents and visitors compared to existing methods of transportation, which are abundant near East Fourth.”

Still, she said those companies’ “advantage is tied to convenience and reliability.”

Sleasman isn’t sure ridesharing will inspire people to go without a car like he has, but the companies present more options to travel to Cleveland’s growing variety of entertainment.

“I don’t know if it’ll change car ownership, but it might change people who otherwise were on the fence of living closer to town,” he said. “There are people who are close to my lifestyle that’ll tilt toward it.”

“I don’t see it making a big difference, but if we get to be more bike-friendly as a city and public transit gets more efficient, I think ridesharing will help accelerate a move back to the city, back to the core of things.”

Brandon Baker
Brandon Baker

About the Author: Brandon Baker

Brandon Baker is a freelance journalist who has contributed articles to Freshwater Cleveland since 2014. His work has been featured by Scene, The News-Herald, Patch, EcoWatch and more. By day, he is a full-time research consultant with Burges & Burges Strategists, where he provides communications, messaging, strategic and research support for various public, private, and nonprofit entities in Ohio. In the fall, he enjoys working for the Cleveland Browns Scoreboard Operations team at FirstEnergy Stadium. Brandon is a graduate of The Ohio State University and enjoys traveling, exercising, the arts, volunteering, and spending time with family.