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No taxi, no problem

Ridesharing drivers taking advantage of public transportation gap

Uber driver Sara Pruett looks for potential riders on her phone through the Uber app. She said it was slow at first, but now that word is spreading there are more riders.

NEW ULM — The adoption of Uber/Lyft as a transportation solution is picking up speed in New Ulm for drivers and passengers.

The program began in June when a change in transportation ordinance allowed for rideshare companies to operate within New Ulm. Uber and Lyft had been allowed to take fares into or out of New Ulm, but inter-city usage was not allowed. The change was made due to a shortage in town transportation services. City Councilman and Transportation Committee member Eric Warmka said this change came at the right time.

“We had a reliable taxi service in the community,” Warmka said. “Upon that taxi service leaving us, we were left with a vacancy. We needed it filled fast with the amount of tourism and activities [we have]. Uber and Lyft were a quick fix to a gaping need we had in the community. Allowing to be in New Ulm was a need we filled quickly.”

Though Uber and Lyft had grown in popularity in the years prior, Warmka said the council had not considered approving them in the city before June 2023. With the options that were still available, Warmka said it was not seen as a pressing issue.

Currently, four drivers work with Uber and/or Lyft in New Ulm. Heidi Falk is one of them, having driven in Mankato before New Ulm became available. She was also a cab driver, starting in the 1990fillings working for Kato Cab and then Red’s Rides. Falk said the Uber experience has been mostly similar to her past work.

Heidi Falk (left) and Angela Stutes (right) stand with the car Stutes uses for picking up fares with Uber. A light-up sign ensures riders know they’re getting in the right car, especially at night when Stutes usually does Uber fares.

“Other than it being my car, there isn’t much of a difference,” Falk said. With dispatching back for Kato Cab and Red’s Rides, it would be either texting or calling me. With Uber, everything is through the app, which is nice.”

Falk said the application for Uber/Lyft was simple. She downloaded the Uber app and signed up as a driver. They require a background check, insurance, a driver’s license, and for the car to be newer than 2009 and in good condition. She said Uber’s process took around a week. The city’s process is not as breezy.

“We had a single-page form to fill out,” Falk said. “I took it in and submitted it to the council lady at the city office. And then it went in front of the city council to be approved.”

City Council only meets twice a month, extending the time it takes for drivers to get approved. The time it takes for the physical license to come to drivers in the mail further delays their ability to get started. Uber driver Angela Stutes, who is new to the service and works from home as a software engineer, said this is the one issue drivers have faced so far.

“I think the licensing, having to wait two weeks to get it is a bit [excessive],” she said. “They said it would take a lot of time. The biggest complaint I hear is ‘Why do we need to wait two weeks to do rideshare?'”

Warmka said he has heard these complaints from drivers. He said the city is doing its best to get licenses out as fast as it can with a new system.

“We’re doing our best to streamline the process,” he said. “When an applicant applies, [we try] to get them on the very next city council agenda so they’re not waiting for months. It’s as fast as we can get them approved properly. We have a new application system, and we know how to use it.”

Sara Pruett, who works as a New Ulm police officer, was watching the June 20 City Council meeting online when the ordinance was changed. She signed up for Uber immediately afterward and started ride-sharing in October. She said Uber has provided her with an opportunity that suits her.

“It’s completely flexible,” Pruett said. “I’ve had other friends who’ve done it in other cities. Some friends are teachers who do it in the summer when they’re off school. I already know all the streets and towns that work well for me. You get to sit and talk to people which is one of my favorite things.”

Falk and Stutes shared similar reasons for doing Uber/Lyft. Falk and Stutes said New Ulm being available helps greatly, as traveling to Mankato for Uber in the winter is not an option.

With the ease of picking their schedule, both have found nights as the best time to work. They said it is the busiest time, as many are looking to catch rides home after drinking. Stutes said bar patrons having this option is vital, as it helps to prevent the alternative.

“A lot of people express ‘I don’t want to drink and drive but we don’t have an option,'” she said. “I think it’s a huge need in this town. We’ve noticed the cops have been pulling people over a lot. It’s good for people to have options to stay safe.”

Pruett, Falk, and Stutes all said driving for Uber/Lyft in New Ulm has been a unanimously positive experience. It allows them to work on their time, make extra money to cover bills and other expenses, and chat with all sorts of different people. For those looking to become an Uber/Lyft driver, Stutes said she encourages people to go for it and at least give it a try.

“There’s not a lot of jobs where you can go make money when you want right?” She said. “There’s not a set schedule. Some people need extra cash to get their bills paid. It’s a very fast self-employment solution. We don’t have a lot of day drivers right now, that’s always an option. There’s many opportunities, it [all depends on when you] choose to drive.”

Stutes said most concerns potential drivers have shared revolve around their taxes changing or becoming more complex. As long as you keep your receipts, Stutes said this issue will not drive you crazy

“With Uber, it balances with what you’re able to write off,” she said. “You can write off gas, car washes, snacks and coffee while you’re driving, the license fee. It’s all tax deductible.”

To spread the word ride-sharing is available and make the process more predictable, a Facebook group has been created by New Ulm drivers. Drivers post ahead of time when they will be online. Riders then know in advance if someone will be available. Riders can also post to see if a driver is able to go online to take their fare. For more information, visit the group at https://www.facebook.com/groups/275578561580299

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