T he Uber driver’s Ford Fusion appeared at the house before we were ready to leave—exactly six minutes after we summoned a lift from the ride-sharing service’s mobile phone app. It’s Manuel, affable captain of the vehicle, ready to steer us from the Casa Solana neighborhood through a sea of downtown debauchery on a recent Friday night.
Four minutes and 57 seconds after boarding the car, we reach our destination, and Manuel charges the credit card account I entered at the app's request—all one needs to do is take a cellphone photo of the card—$6.90 for the 1.8-mile trip. With three riders, that's $2.30 per person, tip included.
Manuel is quiet and polite—a contrast to the reputation the privately held San Francisco-based company has developed since its 2009 formation. Now worth billions, its reach extends to 55 countries and 200 cities.
When Uber broke into New Mexico markets, it followed a familiar pattern of bypassing old regulations that govern the entrenched cab industry, giving it a competitive advantage.
The state's Public Regulation Commission recently ruled that companies like Uber and Lyft should be regulated under the state's Motor Carrier Act, just like its competitors. But it also issued a new set of rules for the app-based firms, which critics argue are less burdensome than those imposed on cab companies.
Uber is even fighting those rules. In a May 4 filing through a local subsidiary, Uber calls the new rules—which include drug testing drivers, insurance coverage and keeping records of its equipment—"fundamentally flawed" and is asking the PRC to reconsider them.
PRC Commissioner Valerie Espinoza notes that Uber drivers would only be required to undergo a drug test if they're involved in an accident. Cab companies and others are required to have a drug- and alcohol-testing program.
"They lessened the safety standards by accommodating them," says Espinoza, the sole dissenter against those new rules on the five-member commission.
Uber argues in fighting the new rules that the PRC shouldn't regulate the company beyond the scope of its business practices. It points to a zero-tolerance policy on drug and alcohol use by drivers as well as an insurance policy that covers drivers and the personal vehicles they use while they're connected to Uber's software platform.
Taylor Patterson, a company spokesman, says in a prepared statement that over 40 jurisdictions in the nation have developed rules that recognize the unique nature of ride-sharing, arguing, "It is now time for the PRC to do the same and pass a reasonable regulation that protects jobs and preserves the ability of New Mexicans to access safe, reliable rides."
Meanwhile, Uber has revved up its presence in Santa Fe since setting foot here in November with a blessing from Mayor Javier Gonzales, who became the company's first rider in the city in a highly coordinated press event on the Plaza.
They're taking on Capital City Cab, the area's only cab company, by following the party. Tourists and barhoppers constitute Santa Fe Uber drivers' most common customers, according to interviews.
A bit more than an hour after Manuel drops us off at the Matador on Friday night, we hail another Uber home. Fabien appears in a Toyota Sequoia and immediately launches into a comedy routine, triggering raucous laughter.
We arrive safely home, digging in our pockets for tips as we spill out of the car. The trip costs $6.87. Russ Harmon, the Uber driver who picked me up the next Sunday afternoon for a 28-mile, $70.76 round-trip ride to the Southside, notes that tips are included in Uber's pricing. (If shorter Uber rides are cheap, longer trips using the company aren't easy on pocketbooks.)
Uber takes a 20 percent cut from the driver's take on each ride, Harmon says. He's been earning $400-$500 per week, part-time income he makes on the side to supplement his earnings as a salesman at a Lexus dealership. (That's just from rides. Uber drivers are not employed by the company.) New rules require vehicle safety inspections for ride-sharing. Harmon says Uber already requires that of its drivers.
"This is a way for anybody to make money in the city—really," he says. "You know, we need jobs here. We need good-paying jobs. This job on average pays $20 an hour. You cannot get a part-time job in Santa Fe doing anything [making $20 an hour]. Maybe dancing at Cheeks. But I don't qualify for that."
Harmon also points to the public-safety aspect: Officials have been trying to reduce drunk driving for a decade. Uber will assist in that fight, he says.
Santa Fe County has been in talks with Uber about coordinating on a subsidized ride program on weekends, similar to the agreement between the county and Capital City Cab today, according to Peter Olson, the county DWI prevention specialist.
Harmon and other Uber drivers also say that they can work at will—all it takes is activating the app. Of course, that means there are fewer active Uber drivers when demand is low.
Cab drivers who work shifts don't have the same flexibility, and as Espinoza points out, they also can't deny service. At 1 am on a recent Sunday night, the Plaza is empty. The late-night dens are closed. There are no tourists. No revelers. No money. "No Uber Available," the app reads.
Uber drivers like Harmon, who note they have nothing against the company, will tell stories of picking up customers who've been waiting for a half hour or more after calling Capital City Cab. On this night, the company's voicemail emphasizes, twice, to leave a number, name and pickup location, in that order.
Seven minutes later, a white four-door Capital City cab rolls down East San Francisco Street. Dan Kato gives a greeting through an open window of his vehicle, accurately deducing that the only person walking across the Plaza, perhaps even within the blocks surrounding it, would be walking into his cab.
Kato, working the 2 pm-midnight shift, notes it's a slow night. It costs $10.28 plus tip to travel roughly the same distance as my friends and I traveled when we hailed an Uber. Kato, who's been driving for Capital City for two years, emphasizes he works at a local company that cares about its community.
He says he feels a new "energy" at Capital City Cab for customers. "People are a lot hungrier" for business, he says of the drivers.