State College

Uber car service to arrive soon in State College area

Uber, a phone app-driven taxi service is coming to State College.
Uber, a phone app-driven taxi service is coming to State College. CDT photo

It looks as though Uber, the app-driven ride-sharing service, will be coming to State College after all.

The state Public Utility Commission last week granted Uber a two-year experimental license to operate anywhere in the state except Philadelphia.

Speculation began last fall about Uber’s arrival after ads were posted on Craigslist seeking drivers in State College. Then the ads disappeared, and Uber ran into problems with the commission for operating without permission in the Pittsburgh area.

On Sunday, however, interviews for drivers were held at the Hampton Inn on East College Avenue, according to Uber.

“We’re actively exploring the market and hope to be up and running some time in the next couple of weeks,” spokeswoman Kaitlin Durkosh said.

Uber is a service that allows drivers to use their own vehicles to provide rides for customers who make arrangements and pay via a smartphone app.

A customer can view a picture of the driver and knows what kind of car to expect and what the car’s license plate will read before getting into the car.

It’s similar to the ride-sharing company Lyft, which is licensed to operate in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Both companies match drivers who use their own vehicles with customers through apps that require cashless transactions.

Lyft, however, does not have any plans to launch in State College at this time, spokeswoman Mary Caroline Pruitt said.

Uber, founded in 2009 by Travis Kalanick and Garrett Camp, started in San Francisco in early 2010. After five years of explosive growth, Uber has become a worldwide company employing more than 160,000 active drivers as of the end of last year, according to The New York Times.

Those who have taxi companies in State College are wary of the ride-sharing company entering State College.

“Uber’s deal with the PUC allows them to not play by the same rules as traditional cab companies,” said Andrew Carey, of Handy Delivery taxi company in State College.

“This results in an uneven playing field where traditional cab companies need to serve as a public utility, operating in snowstorms, high-demand times and in remote corners of the area without charging extra, while Uber can charge whatever rates they want, when they want and cherry-pick the calls they run,” Carey said.

Although, he said, he is leery of the idea of sharing business with new ride-sharing companies, Carey said he thinks they could be a big help at times of high volume.

“State College has approximately 40 taxis,” he said. “On an Ohio State home game you can expect all 40 to be running calls, and that still would be insufficient to meet the demand. If they get regulated fairly, I think Uber ... could provide real help at these peak times.”

Especially for young people, who rely heavily on their smartphones, Uber has proved to be popular wherever it operates.

“The Uber app shows you where the nearest driver is, allowing you to request your pickup when it’s convenient for you,” said Francesca Marchese, a Penn State student who often uses Uber when she’s at home in New Jersey.

“In comparison to having to call a taxi company and, if you’re lucky enough to get an answer, having to wait outside for close to an hour, it’s more ideal,” Marchese said.

“Uber, unlike many taxi services I’ve tried, will also notify you when your car has arrived.”

In early January, the PUC proposed a $19 million fine against the company and had sought to subpoena Kalanick, Uber’s CEO, after finding out it had been running for months in Allegheny County before authorization.

“I definitely noticed,” said Tony Williams, of Tony Williams Car Service, based in Pittsburgh.

“It was months. They were everywhere. I kept noticing more and more and I didn’t see anyone stopping it.”

Documents disclosing the number of trips Uber made in Allegheny County without authorization were pulled from the public record after Uber’s attorneys argued that the information would reveal a trade secret, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported.