MANATEE -- The Bradenton area underwent an Uber expansion Thursday as part of a large-scale Florida start-up in operations by the taxi service.
San Francisco-based Uber Technologies announced its UberX service launched at noon Thursday just hours before the cars hit the road in Bradenton, Palmetto, Sarasota, North Port, Port Charlotte, Punta Gorda and virtually every other mid-size city along the water in the state. Uber is now available to 82 percent of Floridians, according to the company. At the press of a button, folks looking for a ride can open the Uber app on their smartphone, see if a car is in their neighborhood and prepay for a ride, see a real wait time and fare estimate as opposed to calling a cab company. And customers can check out information about their driver in advance, too.
The company decided to expand to Bradenton and other Florida cities for a few reasons, but mainly because the demand is here. Uber could tell residents and tourists were opening the Uber app in Florida cities and couldn't find a ride because Uber wasn't available, Uber Florida General Manager Matt Gore said.
"We can see around the country where people are opening their app and checking for cars and sadly seeing they're not there," Gore said. "Some of them are tourists where Uber is a way of life. Some of them are residents of Florida where they go to the Gulf Coast or beach and it's not there."
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The company has about a dozen drivers starting in the Bradenton-Sarasota market, Gore said, and many more will be added as background checks and applications are completed. Uber is luring new customers with an offer in Manatee and Sarasota counties through Dec. 14 giving away five free rides to each new customer, up to $20. For its local service, Uber is offering UberX, which uses standard four-door cars.
Uber charges a base fare in the Bradenton-Sarasota market of $1.25 plus $1.20 a mile and 13 cents a minute. Minimum fares are $4. A trip from Old Main Street in Bradenton to IMG Academy would cost $10 to $14 while a ride from Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport to Siesta Key Beach would be $18 to $25, according to Uber's fare quote website -- uber.com/en-US/cities/Sarasota.
"It's taking you across the city for 30 percent less than an equivalent cab fare," Gore said.
Uber markets itself to millennials as a "ride sharing service" built on a seamless app that also allows riders to pay for Starbucks in their Uber car and listen to their Spotify playlist. But the company has found more age ranges are using it and has tested specialty services to reach other customers.
In Miami, Uber Select allows customers to order a ride in a Tesla or BMW. In Washington, shoppers on the go can have Uber deliver their purchases with Uber Essentials. And in Tampa Bay, UberHighway service provides a $99 flat-rate ride to Orlando via Interstate 4 as an alternative to trains and buses.
"Now you can press a button and be taken to any city across the state and do it on your own terms," Gore said, adding some folks have used Uber to go from Jacksonville to Miami.
While Uber remains a popular choice for consumers, the company has been in regulatory battles in larger cities and taxi competitors aren't fond of Uber either.
"The real question as Uber enters more markets is what if any regulations they will follow?" said Roger Chapin, an executive with Mears Transportation in Orlando and a Florida Taxicab Association board member. "I don't think they plan to follow any. They are conditioning their own drivers not to play by even the most basic rules pertaining to background checks, insurance or even ordinary fees such as business licenses or airport fees."
Gore contends the company does thorough checks, even looking through sex offender registries as well as provide $1 million minimum liability insurance.
UberX drivers must be at least 21 years old, have a driver's license, personal auto insurance and a full-size, four-door car in excellent condition from 2004 or later, said Uber spokeswoman Kaitlin Durkosh.
Some drivers are not covering their car as a commercial vehicle and Uber offered a specialty policy to cover the car when passengers are in it, which taxi industry leaders from the Florida Taxicab Association have said isn't adequate.
"Safety is our No. 1 concern," Gore said.
As for regulations, Gore said Uber is willing to talk but would rather have a statewide solution because Uber cars pass through many jurisdictions with different regulations.
"What you're not hearing is dozens of cities and mayors that say thank you, we've been looking for this," Gore said. "Across the country and its very true in Florida, we have a patchwork of incredibly outdated regulations that were written when we didn't even exist."
Locally, each jurisdiction is different in how they regulate for-hire and taxi services. Generally each requires minimum insurance coverage for themselves and passengers.
Bradenton has a thorough permitting and inspection program that includes background checks, fingerprinting, business tax license, a vehicle inspection and a vote before the City Council. Uber hasn't contacted Bradenton for permits, said William Ackles, local business tax clerk/records management liaison officer, and city ordinances can only be enforced if fares originate in city limits.
Uber appeared to pick the perfect day to launch in the Bradenton-Sarasota market. The two main enforcement officials were out of the office. Mark Lyons, manager for the city of Sarasota's Parking Operations Division, was off Thursday while Fredrick "Rick" Piccolo, chief executive and president of SRQ, was out sick.
As of Thursday afternoon, no drivers from Uber applied for a ground transportation permit for the airport, said John Schussler, director of properties for SRQ. Registration is $350 per company plus $15 per vehicle, he said.
The Uber app showed least two cars were at the airport Thursday. Schussler said he doesn't have a problem with Uber dropping off passengers -- it's picking them up. (that's a concern). The company hasn't communicated with the airport about its plans, he said.
"If they don't like something about the airport's policy, they need to communicate with us in a businesslike manner what those are and we'd certainly would discuss it," he said. "But to show up and start operating is not a businesslike way of doing a commercial business."
In Sarasota city limits, UberX would be a for-hire service and be required to go through the city's licensing process, said Jan Thornburg, public information officer for the city.
Charles Schelle, Herald business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-4095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.