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Opinion: Springfield deserves the Uber experience

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On recent trips to San Francisco and Fayetteville, Ark., I’ve become enamored with ride-hailing service Uber.

It’s convenient, quick and impersonal – exactly the qualities I’m looking for in a short-term travel service.

Best of all, it works through a simple app on my smartphone. After entering your payment information, the app saves the data for future rides. When using the app, you insert the destination’s address and, through the GPS technology on your phone, the driver comes directly to your location to pick you up.

You don’t have to call. If you’re in a strange city, there’s no need to identify road signs or landmarks to explain your location. Uber comes to you.

In the cities I’ve used Uber, I’ve only waited as long as 12 minutes. Some waits have been half as long.

Imagine sitting in a restaurant or bar and you’re ready to go home or move to a new spot. Load up Uber, finish your beverage and watch the vehicle approach on the app. When it arrives, hop in and you’re on your way.

Anti-social type? You barely have to say a word. Social butterfly? I’ve met interesting people. And a rating service allows both you and the driver to leave a score so future riders and drivers know what they’re in for or to avoid the pickup altogether.

On my trip to the Bay Area in California, I knew ahead of time Uber would be key in the journey. I was surprised to learn the service is thriving closer to home in Fayetteville, where some 79,000 Arkansans call home. Though well smaller than Springfield’s population of 164,000, Fayetteville benefits from a state university campus and proximity to Springdale and Rogers. Still, Springfield’s gross size warrants better travel services.

Earlier this year, rumors hit the street Uber was seeking drivers in the Queen City. Already, Uber operates in St. Louis, Columbia and Kansas City.

Uber spokeswoman Jaime Moore says its chosen cities are driven by demand. Communities that indicate a need for the service are likely to get chosen regardless of population.

She says residents can express their interest by creating an account at Uber.com/drive and including the city name. The more people, the better. Interested Springfieldians also can download the Uber app, which, when used, notifies the company someone in the Queen City wants a ride. Potential drivers can visit the site to tell the company they want the work.

“There is demand there,” Moore says, noting no firm plans are in place to enter Springfield. “It really is a matter of people who want to ride and people who want to drive.”

In Springfield, there weren’t enough responses from drivers when the company advertised jobs in the market. That can change if more people get involved in the process.

In other markets, student government associations have passed resolutions seeking the service, and downtown associations have lobbied on their constituents’ behalf.

While there are regulatory issues that can stand in the way, they shouldn’t.

Like short-term home rental website Airbnb.com, Uber exists ahead of the laws. These services were born from the Internet and have grown quite quickly, leaving municipalities scratching their heads on how to level the playing field.

Because these services aren’t regulated like hotels or taxis, they are perceived as having an unfair advantage over their counterparts that have long cornered their markets. Certainly, hospitality and travel industry groups aren’t thrilled.

These services are a threat and, in many cases, they are simpler, cheaper and all-around better experiences. Lobbyists have turned to the government to cry foul, but various municipalities’ laws are well behind.

Issues with Uber have ranged from payment of drivers to the company’s failure to perform background checks. Moore says those checks now are performed, and drivers are required to show proof of insurance and own vehicles less than 10 years old in good condition.

It’s in the best interest of everyone involved for the company to do these things. It must ensure the safety of its customers, while sufficiently paying its employees.

But industry groups attempting to have these services removed are acting only in their own interests. They know the threat exists. Older services fear the possibility of being phased out.

However, if customers want these new services, it seems unlikely they’ll go away. That’s capitalism 101.

Perhaps older services should step up their game instead of trying to squash new competitors.

Springfield is ready. Uber, are you listening?

Web Editor Geoff Pickle can be reached at gpickle@sbj.net.

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