Uber catching on a bit around the valley | PostIndependent.com

Uber catching on a bit around the valley

Ryan Summerlin
rsummerlin@postindependent.com

The Roaring Fork Valley is taking another step into the sharing economy as a handful of Ubers are popping up with a transportation alternative.

The Uber application, popular in urban areas, provides a system allowing just about anyone with a vehicle and smartphone launch their own car service. Drivers are required to pass background checks, get a state Department of Transportation physical and have their vehicles inspected.

Blake Butler of Glenwood Springs started driving for Uber in Denver, unsure of what kind of demand he'd find in the Roaring Fork Valley.

One of Butler's first nights to work in Denver was New Year's Eve, so he got to see a busy city atmosphere right away.

"I didn't really know what to expect, but you just go into it pretending like you've been doing it forever."

He planned to use the work just to earn some supplemental income, but since he started working in the Roaring Fork Valley, he's found there's plenty of business for him to drive full time.

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In the last six months Butler realized he could make more money driving for Uber than his full-time, $15-an-hour job at an Aspen finance company.

Most of his business is from the Aspen area while demand is sparse around Carbondale and Glenwood Springs, he said. Still, he picks up many trips just by remaining available on Uber while he's at home in Glenwood Springs.

About 54 percent of Aspen's visitors fly in, so they're in need of a ride once they're here, he said.

"And those visitors are often from big cities where Uber is well known and used far more," said Butler.

He started out using a Ford Focus but recently bought a GMC Yukon hybrid, which also allows him to charge a bit more because of the extra seating.

The people using Uber in the Roaring Fork Valley are usually tourists who are happy to be out seeing the sights, and that tends to rub off on you, said Butler.

"And the view outside my windshield each day is a lot better than the view of cubical walls."

Rick Kelly, also from Glenwood Springs, started driving his Subaru Outback as an Uber car as a retirement gig. "I have used Uber across the country in many cities; the first time I did it I was pleasantly surprised that it was so convenient and easy."

In major cities, younger people especially are more and more using Uber, which is cheaper than a DUI if you're going out for a cocktail.

For example, Uber estimates it would cost, depending on traffic, $18 to $24 to get a ride from the Post Independent at 824 Grand Ave. to Colorado Beer Works in Carbondale.

Kelly said Uber offers him a good deal of freedom, the ability to work as much or little as he wants while giving him a supplemental income.

Zisak Childs, who's also been driving for Uber for about six months, describes herself as a little outside the mold of a traditional Uber driver. She's aiming to not only contribute to the local sharing economy but also get more fossil fuel vehicles off the road.

Last year she bought a used 2013 Tesla. As an experiment she's been trying to pay off the vehicle with revenue from her Uber driving.

But the viability of this business model follows the ups and downs of the valley's seasonality. It's a workable business model during the season but not in the off-season, she said.

Though drivers like Butler are having some success with Uber, pairing success with sustainability is proving more challenging, said Childs.

Both Childs and Butler plan to upgrade to Uber's "black car" category, which is reserved for independent car services. This will allow them to get out from under some of Uber's restrictions against advertising their services or soliciting rides.

Childs also noted some other problems with the business model operating in the rural mountains. She's noticed glitches in the application; her cellphone screen will lock up with about one out of three customers.

Butler and Childs mentioned about a half-dozen Uber drivers in the Roaring Fork Valley. But for big events like the X Games and Aspen's Food and Wine Classic, as many as 10 more drivers from Denver have been coming in to cash in.

Childs called it a "vicious cycle" of few drivers and few customers. But Butler believes that getting more Uber drivers in the area will raise people's awareness and the demand will rise.