Driv­ing for dol­lars

The Colonial - - OPINION - By Steve Hen­drix and Lori Aratani

Rea­gan Rucker knew she wanted to join the thou­sands of lo­cal mo­torists haul­ing strangers around in their cars the first time she took an UberX ride as a pas­sen­ger.

The sin­gle mother from North­east Wash­ing­ton had been out of work three years last fall when a friend took her to run er­rands us­ing the smart­phone-based ride-share ser­vice, which links people need­ing rides with car own­ers will­ing to give them — for a price. Sud­denly, the one­time wait­ress could en­vi­sion her­self driv­ing for dol­lars.

“I said ‘Let me try this,’ “said Rucker, 40, who took on a $300 monthly pay­ment for a 2009 Hyundai Elantra (to meet Uber’s re­quire­ments for late-model, four-door sedans), went through crim­i­nal-back­ground and driv­ing-record checks, and be­gan her un­ex­pected ca­reer as a driver for hire. By her third week, she’d logged 51.5 hours and cleared $1,280 af­ter Uber’s 20 per­cent cut. That’s a $64,000-a-year clip, if she could keep up the pace of driv­ing nights, week­ends and while her two teenage daugh­ters are in school.

“That was a lot of driv­ing,” Rucker said. “Money is a mo­ti­va­tor.”

Rucker is among the flood of lo­cal driv­ers flock­ing to join ride-share com­pa­nies that have re­cently ar­rived in the Wash­ing­ton area such as UberX, Side­car and Lyft (whose cars sport bushy pink mus­taches on the grille). The firms won’t give ex­act num­bers, but an UberX spokesman said thou­sands of Wash­ing­ton area driv­ers have signed up since the ser­vice launched in Septem­ber. Un­like Uber’s more up­scale “black car” ser­vice, UberX re­lies on mod­est sedans at rates meant to be com­pet­i­tive with reg­u­lar cab fares.

City of­fi­cials and tra­di­tional taxi com­pa­nies are scram­bling to re­spond to the up­starts. The D.C. Taxi­cab Com­mis­sion on Wed­nes­day took up pro­posed new re­stric­tions on ride-share driv­ers, from lim­it­ing the num­ber of hours they can drive and in­creas­ing the amount of their li­a­bil­ity cov­er­age to al­low­ing taxis to mimic Uber’s dy­namic pric­ing model in some cir­cum­stances. Pro­pos­als un­der con­sid­er­a­tion by the D.C. Coun­cil with the most sup­port would leave the driv­ing hours alone but man­date higher in­sur­ance re­quire­ments, back­ground checks, and ze­ro­tol­er­ance drug and al­co­hol stan­dards.

The in­dus­try, mean­while, is try­ing to sow doubts about the am­a­teur hacks through a “Who’s Driv­ing You?” so­cial me­dia cam­paign funded by the Rockville, Md.-based Taxi­cab, Li­mou­sine and Para­tran­sit As­so­ci­a­tion.

None of that has stopped mobs of stu­dents, wait­ers, trans­la­tors and for­mer cab­bies from vac­u­um­ing their mats, ap­ply­ing the Ar­mor All and open­ing the rear doors to tech-savvy pas­sen­gers look­ing for new ways to get around. Flex­i­ble hours, low start-up costs and the se­cu­rity of cash-free trans­ac­tions are at­tract­ing driv­ers who wouldn’t con­sider driv­ing a reg­u­lar taxi.

Rucker never thought about be­com­ing a cab­bie. But she is fine re­spond­ing to calls from pre-reg­is­tered cus­tomers us­ing the Uber smart­phone app. The com­pany han­dles the money, billing the pas­sen­ger’s credit card on file and then pay­ing— mi­nus Uber’s share — into Rucker’s ac­count.

“I feel very safe,” Rucker said. “They have a record of ev­ery­one who gets in my car and ev­ery­thing that goes on.”

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