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Uber eyes Big Island; Controversial ride-hailing service to launch this week in Kona, Hilo

Updated: 
March 15, 2017 - 12:05am

A bit of Silicon Valley is set to arrive on the Big Island this week with the launch of ride-hailing startup Uber.

The phone app will go live Friday for the entire island.

Uber, one of the most highly valued startups in the world, bills itself as a “taxi alternative.” Ride hailing is on-demand, connecting riders with freelance drivers. Payment is done through an app and relies on credit cards instead of cash.

“I would say there’s a lot of opportunity, and we want to get it right,” company spokeswoman Taylor Patterson said Tuesday. “We want to make sure we have adequate supplies in every town that we launch in. That means starting to educate potential drivers about the opportunities, and then the opportunities for ridership.”

Uber is in place at more than 500 locations around the world. It began services on Kauai last week and has been on Maui and Oahu since 2014.

“We have a base of drivers who’ve indicated interest in driving on the Big Island, so we were able to tap into that list of people,” Patterson said. Ads on Craigslist seeking drivers have been posted since last week.

“It does take us some time to launch a market,” Patterson said. She said there are no specific goals for how many drivers might be needed for Uber to be successful. Most Uber drivers are part time.

“We’d welcome anyone who is interested in having that flexible income opportunity,” Patterson said. “They can drive as little or as much as they want to.”

Uber and other ride-hailing companies such as Lyft have faced criticism when entering transportation markets because drivers and cars are not subject to the same regulations as licensed taxicabs.

Uber drivers must pass a background check and have valid insurance. Their vehicle must be registered and inspected.

In Honolulu, the City Council passed a series of measures aimed at further tightening ride-hailing regulations.

One ordinance, passed last August, places ride-hailing drivers and taxi drivers in one category: “private transportation companies and drivers.”

Additionally, according to the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, Honolulu drivers are required to have a Hawaii driver’s license and pass a more extensive third-party background check.

Uber drivers who pick up and drop off customers at Honolulu International Airport also must have a commercial service permit.

Taxi drivers in Kailua-Kona said they don’t want Uber to launch on the island without a similar structure.

“We don’t want Uber coming unless they’re regulated,” said Brad Hollister, owner of Paradise Taxi. “Our concern is they can’t just be allowed to come over … they need to be screened, they need to be qualified.”

“If they can come in and be on the same playing field we are, then there’s nothing we can do,” Hollister added. “I can’t see the county wanting to allow that (no regulation) because there’s no control.”

“We’re not happy about it, but business is business; what can you do?” said Mercedes Lapenia, a driver with Kona’s Aloha Taxi, which specializes in tour groups.

The taxi pool on the Big Island consists of dozens of small family-owned operations. Paradise Taxi, for example, has just four drivers.

“There are probably well over 100 (drivers) on the island,” Hollister said.

Some companies coordinate with the county Mass Transit Agency, which has a shared-ride taxi program in which riders use coupons to travel within the urban Hilo area, instead of individualized fares.

Transportation accessibility on the Big Island is admittedly “a very big problem,” said Mayor Harry Kim. He and members of the County Council are scheduled to meet with Uber representatives today.

“I know the positives, but I also know some of the problems, and these things have to be addressed,” Kim said. “It’s a relatively new thing for the world, and a totally new thing for Hawaii. If the system is to be supported on the island, it must be integrated with the rest of our transit system, especially the private taxi system.”

“This meeting is only one of many meetings, I would assume,” he said.

Patterson said that concern about Uber entering a market is common at the start of a launch.

“The way we view it is that the transportation ecosystem is a large one,” she said. “I think we view it as being about choice: Riders and drivers should be able to have a choice.

“What we find is that in many places, once Uber is well-established, average wait times for a car is four minutes, which means that people are able to get around reliably and safely at any time of day, and for a lot of people that’s really life-changing.

“This bridges that (accessibility) gap,” she said.

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