BANGOR, Maine — Uber hopes to increase ridership and attract new drivers in the Bangor and Lewiston areas by announcing plans to officially launch in those communities on Wednesday.
The online transportation company already has a few drivers in these and surrounding communities, but until now, it has viewed them as extensions of the company’s presence in Portland and along the coast.
“Our mission is to make transportation as reliable as running water for everyone everywhere,” said Cathy Zhou, general manager of Uber New England, on Monday. “In many of these smaller cities and towns, there’s demand for quick, affordable options.”
The number of people in and around Bangor and Lewiston downloading or looking at the Uber smartphone application signaled a high level of interest, Zhou said, declining to provide specific statistics.
Another draw for the company is the large population of college students in the two areas — students who want to get downtown for drinks with friends or to the airport to head home and visit their families.
Uber drivers sign up online and are vetted by Uber staff who run a criminal background check and ensure drivers have required licenses, proof of vehicle ownership and insurance, according to its website. Riders access the service through a smartphone application or computer and are able to rate drivers based on their trip experience on a one to five-star basis. Drivers also rate riders.
Uber fares tend to be competitive with local taxi services, but the company touts it is more convenient, has shorter waiting times and doesn’t require cash. The driver takes 75 percent of the fare, and the remaining 25 percent goes to Uber. UberX, the only service offered in Maine, is the cheapest option and involves drivers using their own vehicles to give people rides. If there’s a high demand at a particular time in a particular location, Uber institutes surge rates with higher fares. Uber also says there’s no need to tip its drivers, as opposed to a taxi service.
Uber organized in Portland in late 2014.
Uber’s debut in Portland and rapid spread to other Maine communities sparked legislation last year. The law passed by legislators set statewide insurance standards for ride-sharing services and barred individual municipalities or counties from regulating their operations.
This month, Bangor is considering changes to its taxicab ordinance — clarifying rules around smoking, licensing and safety — but those won’t affect ride-sharing services, limousines, buses or courtesy vehicles.
Amos Parker is a dispatcher and driver with Dick’s Taxi in Bangor and said the company, the second oldest taxi service in the city, has already seen the effect of Uber drivers on its business.
However, he said Dick’s has a loyal following that will continue to rely on the company for service.
“We’ve still got our clientele, and we’ve built a strong reputation with them,” Parker said.
He added that Uber’s followers tend to be younger and people visiting from away, but Bangor residents who rely on taxis for getting to appointments, shopping and downtown destinations will continue to turn to local taxi services.
Parker also said that taxi services are bothered by the fact that Uber doesn’t have to follow the same local rules, regulations and licensing requirements.
Andrew Emery of Hampden is a Bangor firefighter who joined Uber as a driver in September 2015.
“It was brand new to the area back then,” he said Monday.
On an off day or weekend, Emery will log into Uber and drive his four-door pickup to downtown Bangor or Orono in hopes of picking up some fares. He says the highest demand comes after concerts, sporting events and on holidays. He gave five rides in a row in Bangor on St. Patrick’s Day.
Emery has provided 70 rides since he started with Uber, he said, adding that he doesn’t do it for the money, but rather because he likes the technology and premise involved. Riders are typically people from larger cities who are familiar with the service. He’s taken fares from people visiting from Boston, San Francisco, London, Paris and other cities.
Locals don’t use the service very often, Emery said, but he believes that could change as it grows after the official Bangor launch.
Last summer, the company launched experimental services in Bar Harbor, Old Orchard, Kennebunk and other seaside communities. Zhou said Uber is evaluating its performance in those towns.
“It went really well, we saw a tremendous amount of demand,” especially from out-of-state tourists who were used to using Uber in their home cities, Zhou said.
Clare Bingham is a former Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce executive director who owns and operates At Your Service Taxi and Tours in Bar Harbor, where the ride-sharing service operated for the summer last year.
Bingham said Monday that on two occasions last summer, one of her drivers had to “rescue” Uber passengers after the people driving them became lost on Mount Desert Island. She later found out those Uber drivers were actually tourists from out of state — one from Massachusetts and one from New Jersey — who were looking to earn a little cash on their vacations.
The Uber drivers who got lost thought they would be able to navigate MDI with their GPS systems, even though they were not personally familiar with the island’s roads, she said.
“They didn’t really know the island at all,” Bingham said.
Uber didn’t fare well on MDI last summer, she said, because they charged more for their rides. But they maintained a presence on the island through the summer and fall by paying their drivers $25 per hour, even if the drivers never went anywhere — a wage, she said, that she cannot match.
“They didn’t get any business. They can sit and sit and sit and try to get market share” for months because they can afford to lose millions of dollars, Bingham said.
She admitted to being “completely biased” but said she doesn’t think MDI benefits by having Uber operating there.
“I don’t think it translates well to rural communities or seasonal communities,” Bingham said. “It’s really unfair. It’s corporate greed at its worst.”
“Our plan is to continue making sure we’re in the cities and towns where our riders are,” Zhou of Uber said.
BDN reporter Bill Trotter contributed to this story.
Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.