OCEAN CITY — One week after the Town of Ocean City passed changes to its taxi cab ordinance, the resort’s very first official Uber driver hit the streets in town this week.
Ocean City officials have been wrestling with the potential for the car service, popular in metropolitan areas across the bridge and all over the country, to come to the resort. Last week, the Mayor and Council passed changes to its ordinance governing taxi cabs in the resort and continued the discussion about regulating Uber if and when it arrived in Ocean City.
This week, it’s no longer a question of if or when as local resident Mick Chester had his application with Uber approved by the growing company. Chester wears many hats around Ocean City, including firefighter, rescue swimmer and bartender, among others, and he is now Ocean City’s first official Uber driver.
He got his approval from Uber and had his account activated last week, and after being out of town last weekend, he was ready to hit the road this week. By Tuesday afternoon, he had already picked up his first fare as the resort’s official Uber driver when he picked up a family visiting Ocean City from out of town in the downtown area and took them to the Dunes on 28th Street.
“Uber sent out a survey to its users last week stating they were opening a market in Ocean City,” Chester said this week. “So it’s now official on their end. As of right now, I’m ready to get rolling. There were a couple of drivers from other areas in town last weekend because of Springfest and the special events associated with it, but I am the first and only local resident doing it at the moment.”
Uber is a car service that connects fares to certified and approved drivers through an app on a cell phone or similar mobile device. Those who have the app contact Uber through their mobile device and Uber, in turn, connects the riders with the closest driver employed by the company in the area. The company has been active for years in over 200 cities nationwide since its inception in 2009.
Heretofore, Uber has not been regulated and doesn’t fit easily into state and local definitions of for-hire transportation services such as cabs and limos, for example. Earlier this year, the Maryland General Assembly passed legislation giving Uber and potentially other app-based car services permanent legal status in the state. That legislation was signed this week by Gov. Larry Hogan.
The legislation creates a separate “transportation network services” category for Uber and similar services so that they would not be classified under the state’s definition of common carriers such as taxis and limos, for example. As a result, Uber has to register with the Maryland Public Service Commission (PSC), which requires background checks for drivers, proof of insurance and at least $1 million in liability insurance, which is similar to what Ocean City already requires of its medallion-carrying taxi cabs and drivers.
Chester said this week he was required to do nothing in terms of registering with the town because the way Uber files in Maryland makes the ride-sharing service exempt from local taxi regulations, at least for the time being. He did have to go through an extensive background check and application process before being allowed to hit the streets in the resort.
“The background check was very thorough,” he said. “They checked federal, state and local records for any felonies or traffic violations. They checked my Social Security number and I had to send them pictures of my vehicle, pictures of my license and my proof of insurance. The whole process took about two and half weeks. The report I got back was six pages long and included other places I had lived in the past like Colorado and Florida and I had never even mentioned that.”
Chester explained Uber connects riders with drivers through the mobile device app. The riders go on the app and tell Uber they are in need of a ride. Uber then finds the riders via GPS and finds the closest company driver to them. The Uber app gives the riders an estimated time of arrival for their driver, alerts them to the vehicle type and name of the driver and any past reviews of the driver from others who had used the service.
For his end, Chester said the Uber app will direct him to the riders, how many there are of them and where they are heading. The app also gives the driver an expected time of arrival and records the time and distance of the ride. Uber also collects the money from the riders and deposits the driver’s share of the fare into his or her bank account at the end of the week. Unlike traditional cabs, there is no money exchanged in the vehicle at the time of the ride.
“There is no cash exchanged or no credit card transactions in the car,” he said. “Also there is not that awkward moment of tip or no tip. Uber handles all of the transactions through the app and the customer is charged and I get my share in the form of a direct deposit into my account at the end of the week.”
Chester said Uber takes the fare directly from the customer’s pre-approved account and takes 20 percent off the top for providing the service. The driver, in this case Chester, gets the remaining 80 percent. He used an example of a typical $10 fare in which Uber would get $2 and Chester would get $8.
Chester said the drivers go on-line when they are available to pick up fares through Uber and essentially set their own schedules. If a driver has to work at another job, or in Chester’s case one of several different jobs, he or she can go off-line and not be available.
“You pretty much work on your own schedule,” he said. “For example, if I’m not doing anything this afternoon, I can go online and make myself available to pick up fares. When I have to go to work later, I go off-line and won’t be available. It’s not like working an eight-hour shift.”
It remains to be seen if Uber catches on in Ocean City and competes with the resort’s thriving taxi cab industry, but Chester believes the resort’s clientele will embrace the concept.
“A lot of the people that visit Ocean City are from Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia and New York and places were Uber has existed for years,” he said. “They’re already used to using it and they expect it to be available when they travel. I know I use it when I travel.”
Chester said his Uber account allows him to freelance somewhat around different parts of Maryland, although his schedule is pretty full with several other jobs.
“They’ve been blowing up my phone trying to go to Baltimore this week because of the Preakness and the Orioles at home and other special events,” he said. “They’re trying to get as many cars as possible out on the streets.”