Uber, the popular online transportation network that allows customers to book rides from their smartphones, has arrived in Hernando County.
Driver Pam White of Hernando Beach recently announced her affiliation with the company on a neighborhood website.
Operating since 2009 as a clearinghouse and dispatcher for drivers who use their own vehicles to drive passengers anywhere, Uber is now established in 404 cities in 60 countries and has served Hillsborough and Pinellas counties since 2014. All rides are booked via the free Uber application, with fares set by Uber and paid by credit card.
While regulatory issues concerning Uber have arisen elsewhere, that hasn't been the case in Hernando.
"There is no regulation of taxis in Hernando County," said Jon Jouben, deputy county attorney.
Explaining Uber's Johnny-come-lately presence in Hernando, Javi Correoso, public affairs manager for Uber in Florida, explained, "There's an analysis that goes into us expanding. The main reason we expanded — we saw a lot of demand potential. We're very happy to be there."
"As of April," Correoso added, "we have a couple hundred driver-partners in Hernando County. As for signups in Hernando County, we have over 1,500." Signing up means only that a rider would consider using the service.
White, 62 and a retired flight attendant, has solicited some of those signups in hopes of getting more fares. Speaking about taking on the job of part-time driver, she said, "It was just something for me to do and get me out of the house."
Kurt Petty, 70, echoes the sentiment. The former contractor from Minnesota, who has lived in Spring Hill for six years, quelled his retirement boredom when he signed up in early May to drive for Uber.
"It's still a little slow in Hernando County," Petty said, "but when I get around Tampa and the airports, I get (calls) every two to three minutes."
On a recent day, Petty drove from about 6:30 a.m., with an early trip to Tampa International Airport, until nearly 10 p.m.
"I'll drive from sunup to sundown. I like it," he declared, with one caveat: An Uber driver learns a passenger's destination only at pickup time.
"Not knowing where I'm going to have to go, that kind of bugs me," Petty said.
"Probably the only downfall is I don't know where I'll be going," she said. "But when I sign on, I just have to know I should expect I might have to go to the airport. If I've been driving along too long, I turn my app off and drive home."
That flexibility appeals to drivers.
"The thing I like about it, I sit right here in my house and wait for the alarm," Petty said.
"Flexibility is what makes Uber so good for the driver," Correoso echoed. "In Florida, the majority of drivers do less than 10 hours a week."
Petty described the Uber-established rates for his 2010 Lincoln MKT luxury six-seater: $1 to start plus 11 cents a minute while in the vehicle and 80 cents a mile. White's 2013 Kia Sportage, a four-seater that Uber considers standard, commands slightly lower rates. Uber takes 20 percent of the total fare.
"My price is way cheaper — $10 anywhere in Spring Hill or Brooksville," counters Richie Montalbano, owner-driver for eight years of the one-car A Friendly Taxi in Spring Hill.
Montalbano doesn't expect competition from Uber.
"My customers are all the same people, regulars," he said.
"We're price-competitive with Uber," said Hank Miller, owner of the 11-vehicle fleet at Hank's Transportation, based in Spring Hill. "Our fares are the same no matter what time you call us, every day of the year, 24 hours. We never close down."
While a Hank's dispatcher said a couple of Uber-stickered cars have been observed in the area, White and Petty said Uber hasn't provided any identifying decals, signs or Uber-logo garb. Rather, when a passenger books a ride, the person is provided with the vehicle's description and a photo of the driver as a means of identification.
As all drivers do, White and Petty underwent background checks, including their driving records.
"Not a one in my life," Petty boasted.
"Maybe a speeding ticket when I was young," offered White.
Uber encourages passengers to rate their drivers. Multiple ratings of less than excellent can get a driver dismissed.
"So that I get good ratings," White said, "I always carry a cooler of water, some candy or snacks to make my passengers happy. I make sure my vehicle's clean."
"Uh, oh," he muttered, bending to examine a smudge on a rear passenger door. Sticky fingers, he guessed. "Just came back from a fare that had four kids."
Snacks are pretty much a no-no in his spotless chariot.
As for service, "I open the doors for them if I get a chance," Petty said. "I carry their luggage."
And the Lincoln's luxury is a plus in itself. Passengers have told him so.
Passengers in numbers are the ticket to Uber taking a toehold in Hernando, White said.
"People are talking about it now," she said, "so maybe word will get out."
Contact Beth Gray at [email protected]