Group promotes ride sharing

Chamber Young Professionals tackle social media campaign

A group of young professionals in Owensboro is organizing a social media campaign aimed at attracting the interest of ride sharing companies such as Uber or Lyft to invest in the city.

Chamber Young Professionals, an arm of the Greater Owensboro Chamber of Commerce, is encouraging local residents to download the Uber and Lyft smartphone apps and interact with their respective Facebook and Twitter accounts. It’s leading up to an all-day social media “blast” the chamber has planned for Nov. 2, when officials hope to have thousands of Owensboro and Daviess County residents flooding the ride share services with social media messages.

With enough interest, organizers say, one or both of the companies may decide Owensboro is worth the investment.

Mobile, real-time ride sharing allows users to request local drivers using their smartphones. It’s much like a taxi service, except drivers can often use their own vehicles and seek employment from their homes and those needing a ride can order and pay for the drive using a mobile app. Uber and Lyft, the two dominant ride sharing services in the U.S., are available in most major markets around the world. They’re both available in Louisville, Lexington and Bowling Green, while Lyft alone is serving the smaller communities of Elizabethtown and Bardstown.

Those two communities, with populations of 30,000 people or less, are significantly smaller than Owensboro, which is why Young Professionals’ President Andrew Howard said he believes Kentucky’s fourth largest city should be worth a look.

“The people, businesses and organizations we’ve talked to say there’s a real need for ride sharing services here in Owensboro,” Howard said. “People come here from other communities and they expect it to be available when they pull up their Uber or Lyft apps, but it’s not.”

The services are particularly popular among young people who use them as a way to get home after a night of drinking or an inexpensive way to explore a new city. CYP Communications Chair Erica Yartz said there’s enough evidence from other communities to prove that social media communication is the best way to develop interest from Uber or Lyft, but it means more than just young people have to get involved. Either way, she said, there’s a significant commitment among the business community that it’s time for ride sharing in Owensboro.

“We don’t want to sit around and wait for Uber or Lyft to find us,” she said. “We’re ready to reach out directly to them, and this is a pretty good way to get their attention.”

Howard described ride sharing as a safe way to travel that allows local people new job opportunities or ways to supplement their incomes, can give visitors a citywide experience and may have a significant impact on decreasing the number of local drunk driving instances and/or deadly vehicular accidents.

“Young Professionals (is) working toward inclusivity for everyone here,” he said. “That’s what would make this so great; we believe everyone can benefit.”

But maybe not quite everyone, says Executive Taxi Manager Billy Pogue. The company, which operates cabs in a 100-mile radius from Owensboro, is already available 24/7, 365 days of the year, he said. Executive Taxi absorbed Komfort Kabs in 2014 and updated to an almost entirely new fleet of vehicles that have received positive reviews from regular users.

Ride sharing could make a dent in business, he said, but he does believe he has a base of faithful customers. Regardless, he added, Owensboro just isn’t a major metropolitan area and it definitely doesn’t have enough business to support companies like Uber or Lyft.

“If Executive Taxi sustained regular business and we just couldn’t keep up with the demand, I think we’d be all for the competition, but we’re far from that right now,” he said. “Our drivers, generally speaking, can get to people within a 20-minute window. Now, we can get busy at peak times, but we have good reviews and we do an adequate job with the business there is here.”

Pogue said he believes if a ride sharing company did come to Owensboro, it would fizzle out quickly.

“If we had a thriving nightlife, a casino, or a major, metropolitan downtown, it might be worth it, but I can just about count the number of bars we have on one hand,” he said. “Speaking from a business perspective only and the experience I have doing this, there’s just no need for ride sharing yet.”

River City Yellow Cab Co. of Evansville also operates taxi cabs in Owensboro. No one with the company responded to requests for comment on Friday.

Howard and Yartz said there may be other reasons why local cab companies aren’t meeting the demand. For one thing, taxis aren’t as popular among young people that are used to ride sharing, they said. Plus, the local response the chamber has already received online regarding the social media campaign points to a huge base of support.

Jessica Kirk, programs and events manager with the chamber, said taxi and ride sharing customer bases may actually differ somewhat. People are making decisions every weekend in Owensboro to spend time with friends rather than going out to local bars or restaurants, she said. They know that a ride home isn’t as simple as a click of a button for now. That means that if ride sharing did become available, there’s reason to believe it would have an economic impact on retail and restaurant areas of the city.

Mayor Tom Watson agrees. He said ride sharing appears to fall in line with ongoing efforts to attract and retain young people in the region. When those people have access to Uber or Lyft in bigger cities that may be as close as Evansville or Bowling Green, it has an impact on what they think of Owensboro.

“Young people are accustomed to a certain type of transportation,” he said. “The public seems to want this, and I understand. They’re thinking about what their community should be — not just what it is.”

City officials agree, also, that ride sharing would have little to no impact on public transportation like the city bus system. Those routes and prices are fixed, and they don’t serve the same social function that ride sharing does, said Director of Public Works Wayne Shelton.

In 2013-14 the city passed a number ordinances designed to regulate the existing taxi cab industry in Owensboro. Assistant City Attorney Steve Lynn said officials had fielded a number of complaints from users who reported “terrible” cab conditions and unreliable service. In response, the city heightened 2008 licensing requirements, required background checks on drivers and instituted yearly or on-the-spot cab inspections to ensure safe and comfortable rides.

“I don’t think we’ve received any complaints since we instituted those regulations,” Lynn said. “It’s too early to tell if we would regulate ride sharing services the same way.”

Already, said City Manager Bill Parrish, staff have begun contacting area communities that are covered by ride sharing services to see what ways municipal governments can ensure public safety and convenience. On face value alone, however, he said ride sharing appears like a positive addition to a growing community.

“We’re a progressive city,” Parrish said. “You’re going to see city government studying this sooner rather than later.”

Neither Uber nor Lyft responded to media inquiries sent Friday.

How to Connect

Chamber Young Professionals want people in and around Owensboro to interact with Uber and Lyft’s social media accounts on Nov. 2. On that day, CYP says you should do the following using Twitter or Facebook:

• Tweet “Owensboro is #Uber excited @uber #OBKY @GOchamber.”

• Tweet “#Lyft up Owensboro @lyft #OBKY @GOchamber.”

In the meantime, everyone is encouraged to download the Uber and Lyft apps on their smartphones, like their Facebook pages, follow their Twitter accounts and join the “Bring UBER to Owensboro” and “Bring LYFT to Owensboro” Facebook pages.

By: Austin Ramsey, Messenger-Inquirer