Last month Uber drove into Big Sky Country. The world-wide private ride-hailing company started service in Butte, Bozeman, Helena, Billings, Missoula, and Great Falls. That’s giving locals a shot at a new income stream, and residents more choices for public transportation.
That pinging sound is unfamiliar to most Montanans. It’s the digital signal of an Uber driver being called for a passenger pickup. Jared Broxterman hopes to hear a lot of it in the future. He started driving with Uber four weeks ago in Missoula and he couldn’t be happier.
"Yeah, I love it. I can’t complain at all. Let’s turn her on ... online ... going online ... online. So, now we are just waiting for someone to request a ride."
I rode along with Broxterman on a recent night shift as he cruised the downtown bar scene, waiting for fares. He says it’s been an interesting three weeks.
"I picked up these four drunk bikers from a hotel about 2:30 in the morning. I drove them a block to the Taco Bell drive-thru because they wanted Taco Bell."
And then you just brought them back to the hotel?
“Yep, I drove them through. They ordered about $80 worth of Taco Bell, and I drove them back to the hotel (laughter)."
Uber recruits local drivers with their own cars willing to pick up passengers dispatched through a cell phone. Drivers can work as much or as little as they want, earning up to 80 percent commission on fares in exchange for covering their own expenses, like insurance, gas and maintenance. Drivers must be at least 21, and pass a criminal background check.
"Yeah, they got to make sure you’re not a felon, or nothing like that, that you have nothing violent or some creeper."
Broxterman recently left his delivery job to take up the Uber offer.
"I saw this and I’m like ... I can do this when I want to. I can make as much money as I want to. And I’m driving anyways, so it’s nothing new."
Uber drivers get paid mostly by the ride with no guarantees of monies earned. They are considered “outside contractors,” not direct employees of the company, which has become an issue for some drivers across the country. Things like unemployment insurance, reimbursement, and overtime do not exist in the Uber world.
But for Broxterman, the ability to create his own schedule and the company’s guaranteed premiums for working certain days and times outweighs any negatives. Here in Montana, those guaranteed premiums have been around $18 an hour, about double the average for a taxi driver or chauffeur here, according to recent state figures.
"Heck yeah, you can’t beat $18 an hour in Missoula, Montana."
And Broxterman is thinking long term.
"Now that the University classes are going into session, it’s just going to explode. It’s gonna get big. I don’t think there’s going to be enough drivers to accommodate all the riders."
Uber took a while to make it to Montana. Representatives Ellie Hill-Smith, a Missoula Democrat, and Culbertson Republican Austin Knudsen mounted a two year fight in the legislature to bring Uber here. According to Hill-Smith, there was some push-back from local taxi companies.
"Basically, the current taxicab services in Missoula in particular had a monopoly, and they basically had a competitor's veto on anyone trying to start a new cab company, and so we had to change the law here in Montana to allow for there to be free-market competition in trying to get a ride."
The company faces protests from local cab companies who say they’re being priced out because they’re under stricter licensing and regulatory costs than Uber.
Carrie Pintar, the owner of Amazing Taxi in Livingston, told the Billings Gazette it’s "a harsh double standard," and that Uber doesn’t have regulated prices like they do.
Other cabbies say drivers may underestimate the amount of work and cost that goes into transportation.
After three weeks on the streets, however, Representative Hill thinks it’s going pretty well.
"Everyone’s very happy. Seems I’ve been getting lots and lots of calls thanking me."
Stacy Hunt, a businesswoman in Missoula, has taken Uber in many cities across the country.
"It’s quick and efficient, and the drivers, they’re always very pleasant."
Hunt says she’s grateful that it’s landed in Montana.
"So, I’ve been in Missoula for about eight years and I’ve been using taxi services the entire time. I’ve used both Yellow and there was another, I think Green Taxi, and both were difficult to get on time. I’m excited Uber is here because I think it creates a bit more of a competitive market and they’ve been -- so far I’ve used them once -- and it was fast and cheap."
According to Broxterman, there are about eight to 10 steady drivers so far here in Missoula, mostly in the downtown area, and rides are growing steadily.