Your Uber is here
By ANDREW MCGINN
Here’s a recent headline you’re unlikely to see repeated in Jefferson:
“Bollywood star ‘shaken’ after Uber ride in London.”
“Well,” you’re probably thinking right about now, “that’s because there’s no Uber in Jefferson.”
And that’s where you’re wrong.
The next time a Bollywood star finds herself in need of a lift across town — and you just never know when Priyanka Chopra might be stranded in Jefferson — her ride will arrive with the familiar “Uber” sticker on its front window and a sticker on the rear window that reads, “I’M A GRANDMA, WHAT’S YOUR SUPERPOWER?”
With 3.9 million drivers in 63 countries giving 14 million rides every day, San Francisco-based Uber unceremoniously added another driver to its ranks in 2019 — its very first in the cosmopolitan metropolis of Jefferson, Iowa.
“People are surprised,” explained Laura Wyatt, 62. “They say, ‘Why would you do that? Aren’t you worried about being robbed? Aren’t you worried about somebody getting sick in your car?’”
(So it seems Uber’s legend precedes itself.)
Before signing up to drive for Uber, Wyatt was like any other resident of small-town Iowa — unconvinced that a ridesharing service so ubiquitous to urban life in the 21st century would be used or even needed in a community of 6.01 square miles. (By comparison, the Chicago metro spans 10,856 square miles.)
Then, a year ago, Wyatt found herself unable to drive for six months after a bout of double-pneumonia and sepsis left her clinging to life at a Des Moines hospital.
Back in Jefferson, the 1.3 miles separating her home from physical therapy appointments suddenly seemed like 30 miles.
“I learned the hard way there’s no way to get around town,” she said. “In Jefferson, there’s no public transit. There’s no way to get there unless you hit up family and friends.”
Wyatt’s 37-year-old daughter, Kelly, suggested that her mom remedy the problem by starting Jefferson’s first Uber service.
“I thought it was a little crazy,” Wyatt confessed, “simply because I didn’t think there’d be a demand.”
“There most definitely is,” she added. “We could have three or four and it wouldn’t be too many.”
Wyatt signed up in June to drive for Uber. Her only cost was $10 to access her driving history from the Iowa Department of Transportation.
And, just like that, Uber made it official, sending her a sticker for the window of her 2013 Ford Escape.
Officially, though, she hasn’t given a single ride yet.
“They don’t know I’m out here,” she said.
It would seem several variables are at work.
One, if Wyatt isn’t logged into her Uber app at the exact moment someone needs a ride — drivers set their own hours — it shows the service is unavailable in Jefferson because there’s so far only the one Uber driver.
Two, those people in Jefferson who do have experience riding with Uber (or its rival, Lyft) on vacation presumably assume the service isn’t available in rural Iowa.
And, three, the people who might actually use the service regularly — older residents in need of trips to the grocery store or a doctor’s appointment, particularly in the thick of winter — don’t know they first need to download an app to their smartphone to hail a ride.
“Don’t just call me,” Wyatt said. “I have to use the Uber app.”
Accepting a ride request through the app, Wyatt explained, gives her coverage under Uber’s insurance, which is key.
Also, the only cash Wyatt can accept is for tips.
“I’ve given lots of friends rides to things over the years,” she said. “I never thought I’d do it as a job.”
Wyatt, who also works part-time as the secretary at Central Christian Church, encourages people to not be afraid of the app — it’s easy, and free, to download.
Wyatt hailed her first Uber in 2018, when she went to a concert in Kansas City. She didn’t want to worry about finding her way back to the hotel after the show.
“They were sitting there at the curb,” she said. “All I had to do was get the app.”
Kelly (Wyatt) Smith, Wyatt’s daughter, is “incredibly proud” of her mom for bringing Uber to town.
A former event planner for Microsoft who now works for Catch Des Moines (the Greater Des Moines Convention and Visitors Bureau), Smith has used Uber herself for years, calling it “too easy and too inexpensive not to consider.”
In places like Los Angeles, where it’s believed there are more than 100,000 Ubers and Lyfts, ride-hailing technology has practically decimated the taxi business. The New York Times reported this month that the taxi business in L.A. is down 75 percent since 2012, when Uber arrived in the city.
In Smith’s experience (listen up, Bollywood stars), Uber drivers in Iowa are about as pleasant as you might expect.
“I appreciate that most of my drivers are parents/grandparents/retirees/professionals who are just looking for a little extra cash or something to do in their spare time,” Smith explained. “It always makes me feel safe and comfortable, and I generally have great conversation.”
She added that Uber is especially needed in a place like Jefferson.
“Every community,” she said, “deserves the comfort of knowing that there is an option for people who find themselves in a situation where they may pose a risk to others if they get behind the wheel.”
Arguably, no one agrees with that sentiment more than Jefferson Police Chief Mark Clouse, whose officers have gotten more proactive about keeping impaired drivers off local roads in the years since Wild Rose Casino opened in 2015.
“I welcome that. That’s an awesome thing for our community to have,” he said of Uber.
Since 2014, officers in Jefferson have arrested 181 people for either operating while intoxicated or driving while revoked because of a previous alcohol offense, according to Clouse.
Between 2009 and 2013, he said, only 92 people were caught.
Clouse prefers to attribute the spike to officers being more proactive than the mere presence of a casino — but, clearly, Uber could be right at home in Jefferson.
“I think the market’s here,” he said.