Catherine Purcell heads west of the Capitol Building and makes her way north of the White House on 16th Street in her silver Honda CRV. Her eyes dart between the road and the flashing iPhone on her dashboard.
As one of one of Uber’s growing fleet of drivers, Purcell, who worked in the banking industry during her former life, began with the ride-sharing company last November.
“It’s like speed dating. Every like twelve minutes you get somebody new and they can be doctors, or lawyers, or politicians,” said Purcell.
Uber driver Catherine Purcell stands in front of her car outside the United States Capitol, Aug. 28, 2014. (Geneva Sands/Fusion)
“I think that they hit the nail in the head as far as a service that was failing the public,” she said.
In Washington, Uber connects passengers with black cars, taxis and its ride-sharing services uberX and uberXL via its app.
“I never take taxis, I only take Ubers,” said Michelle, a 23-year-old regular user, in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of D.C. “Especially with uberX, they made it really affordable.”
Uber has caught on. The San Francisco-based company has expanded to 45 countries, and 205 cities worldwide, becoming one of the most valuable private companies since its launch in 2009.
“I don’t think anyone really could have anticipated how fast and how rapid this company has grown,” said Zuhairah Washington, general manager of Uber D.C.
Despite enthusiasm, Uber has had its share of controversy on the road to ride-share domination — running up against traditional taxi lobbies and regulatory hurdles in D.C. and around the country, as well.
“They [Uber] sort of came in with the idea that they would just come in and do whatever they wanted … without any effort to determine what the practices were and what that meant to the community they were doing it to,” said Ron Linton, Chairman of the DC Taxicab Commission.
The commission’s primary concerns are: passenger safety, ensuring that only city-licensed taxis accept streets hails, and preventing illegitimate companies from taking advantage of the new ride-sharing marketplace, according to Linton.
Although Linton bumped heads with Uber in the past, he acknowledges that app-enabled ridesharing is here to stay.
“There is a market for the kind of service that Uber, Lyft, and others, they get customers who want rides, and hook up with drivers, they put the two together,” Linton said. “We’re beginning to work it out.”
Not all customers are satisfied with the service.
Uber made unflattering headlines in July when passenger Ryan Simonetti, CEO and co-founder of conference and meeting space company Convene, tweeted: “Was just kidnapped by an @uber driver in DC, held against my will, and involved in a high speed chase across state lines with police #Crazy,” according to The Washington Post.
Simonetti claimed that he and his colleagues were stuck in an Uber car for 8 -10 minutes, as the driver attempted to outrun a taxi inspector.
Dave Sutton, a spokesperson for Who’s Driving You?, a public safety initiative, doesn’t believe that Uber or other similar services have done enough to protect the public.
“What we’d like to see is a single set of regulations for both the taxi cabs and the rideshares. Both Uber and Lyft like to say that they’re not really taxi companies that they’re something else, because of their technology. This simply isn’t true. They are taxi companies,” said Sutton.
Uber’s D.C. spokesperson told Fusion that its drivers are “fully vetted,” with 7-year background checks, including searches on the National Sex Offender database.
“We try to provide a service that every single person who tries, who knows is better from a safety perspective than the alternatives that are out there. And we are continuing to pursue ways to do the job better,” said Washington.
A group of economists from the University of Chicago’s Booth School Initiative on Global Markets (IGM) unanimously agreed that customers were benefiting from the increased competition brought on by ride-sharing services.
Economists tell Fusion that the industry is good for drivers, too. While wages weren’t great, they were mostly beneficial to drivers who own their cars and are looking to supplement their income.
William Parker started driving for Uber about five months ago, and is considering it as a fulltime job, says he is satisfied with the money.
“You get 80 percent, they get 20 percent. They’re handling all your paperwork — it’s almost like your own business, he said.
William Parker in front of his Uber vehicle in Washington, D.C., Aug. 25, 2014. (Geneva Sands/Fusion)
Uber is attracting drivers like Purcell and Parker, who have never worked in the livery industry before.
“I’m a printer by trade. What’s happening is, printing is a dying industry … if that trade is drying up I needed another job,” said Parker.
Drivers may be content, but the competition has accused the car service behemoth of aggressive and unfair tactics.
In August, The Verge reported that Uber had supplied contractors with “burner phones and credit cards as part of its sophisticated effort to undermine Lyft [a competitor ridesharing service] and other competitors,” in a marketing effort known as “Operation SLOG.”
Uber says it defends the free market. “Drivers deserve options. They are independent and shouldn’t be restricted from other opportunities,” a company spokesman told Fusion in an email.
Purcell isn’t deterred by the discord.
“I have a job that I can wear what I want, work when I want, and I can go all over,” she said.
For the time being, Purcell said she plans to continue traversing the streets, waiting for the flash notice of a customer on her iPhone.
-Video by Lindsay Garfield, Alcione Gonzalez and Geneva Sands. Edited by Jonathon Duncan.