Uber thinks it can woo Philadelphians with luxury car service

It feels a bit indulgent. A little conspicuous. Show-offy even.

But the founder of Uber — a luxury car service you can summon with a smartphone — thinks it will catch on in Philadelphia.

The service costs almost twice as much as a metered cab. But its speed trumps a taxi. Tap your phone (no dialing, no explaining your location or destination, and no waiting longer than a matter of minutes) and a shiny black Lincoln Town Car arrives. The ride is smoother. The driver is chatty. The seats are plusher. The water — free bottles for riders — is cold. And if you want to see and be seen, it's a lot more attractive having a driver open the door for you than stepping out of a yellow Crown Vic.

"I Uber everywhere," said Sean General, a Philadelphia-based media mogul and fashion industry insider who jet-sets around Philly (and New York) in cars he hails with his iPhone. On a recent Tuesday, General, dressed all in black and sporting a spiky cut with the perfect amount of product, chats it up with friends at the Great Chefs Event at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. The conversation turns to how he plans to get home to his Old City digs.

"It's just like zip and a car is there and waiting for me," General said of the service that's a mere month old. "I just love it."

With operations in 11 other cities, Uber officially launched here the first week in June with an insiders luncheon at Square 1682 followed by a tastemaker's dinner at Walnut Street's gleaming Stotesbury Mansion. Over cocktails, Uber's founder, 35-year-old Travis Kalanick, gave a PowerPoint presentation to about 60 influential Philadelphians, including Mike Harris, director of marketing and special projects for the Philadelphia Phillies; Scott Mirkin, a key producer of Jay-Z's Made in America tour; and celebrity chef Marc Vetri. (Nightlife professionals and restaurant industry folks are big Uber-ers, you know.)

Philadelphians just don't realize "how awesome they are," Kalanick later said in an interview. "And I'm losing my mind with that."

The quintessential salesman, and he has to be.

After all, Kalanick wants to lure Philadelphia's earlier adopters — the kind of people not only eager to try something new but influential enough to convince others that a private driver is a necessity. It's those same people who helped everyone embrace drinking $5 cups of Starbucks coffee and reading their beach novels by tablet.

So Kalanick matter-of-factly rattled off all of Philadelphia's Uber-worthy destinations: fabulous restaurants, the fantastic nightlife, our beloved sports teams — never mind that Kalanick's presentation flashed a still of the New York Jets. At least they wear green.

The idea for Uber — German for above, over or across — came to Kalanick when he was at Paris' Le Web Conference in 2008. Paris' mega-sophisticated transportation system made him realize how hard it was to catch a cab in San Francisco, where he lives.

"I didn't want to get on the phone and make a call," Kalanick said. "I just wanted to be able to push a button and get a classy ride."

So the serial entrepreneur set out to build an app. Already a millionaire from previous Internet ventures (one, a search engine called Scour, went bankrupt after he settled out of court for $1 million in a lawsuit over copyright damages), he hired a Web developer and partnered with a few limousine companies in San Francisco. The app keeps your credit card information on file so you'll be automatically charged — tip included. (Regular cabs offer a credit card machine in the backseat; dealing with it can take a few minutes upon exiting and usually causes bristling by the driver.) It also allows you to view on a map the Uber car heading your way, sending a text with your driver's name and rating, and notifying you when it has arrived.

At first Kalanick named the business Uber Cab, but the city of San Francisco sent him a cease-and-desist order because it wasn't a cab company, which follows strict licensing rules to operate. So, Uber it was. He launched it in 2010 and by the next year had operations in New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., and Paris.

Uber started in Philadelphia contracting with about a half a dozen limo companies and 50 drivers, Kalanick said, and now has on the road about 100 Town Cars. Uber's busiest time is Saturday night, the most heavily trafficked areas include Old City and Northern Liberties, but surprisingly, the Graduate Hospital area and Kensington get a lot of drop-offs and pickups, too.

At a time when both prom season and spring wedding season are over, the added business has helped the limo drivers. There are only so many full-time gigs driving people like Philly-area-based actor Terrence Howard and comedian Wanda Sykes.

"I've been driving for about a month, and yes, I've seen a nice jump in my business," said Kashif Farrukh, a driver of Atlantic Limousine Service, an Uber partner. "We are getting a lot of new customers. It's going well."

Within the last two years, the privately held company has raised $43 million from the likes of e-commerce entrepreneur Jeff Bezos, Goldman Sachs, and Menlo Ventures. The company has grown roughly 20 percent to 30 percent each month since it started.

Locally, there's room for growth, Kalanick says. He compares the current state of business to how it was in the early days in New York — now Uber's second-largest city. "Philly knows how to roll," Kalanick said.

Uber, which has 90 employees worldwide, has a squad of three housed in an office building at 16th and Arch Streets. One is a community service manager who handles social media, making sure people who attend cool events know Uber is an option. That means forming partnerships with event planners at new venues like the new Xfinity Live! at the sports complex and working with networking organizations like Drink Philly, a resource for finding happy hours, drink specials, and drinking-related events. Uber currently is offering promotional codes for half off an Uber ride during Wednesday-night happy-hour Center City Sips. That, by the way, is nothing to sneeze at: The minimum fare is $15, a base of $7 and $3.75 per mile in more than 11-mile-per-hour traffic.

The goal now is for Uber to get as many people as possible to download the free app on their smartphones. And in a blue-collar town like Philadelphia where people are less likely to throw money at luxuries, that could be challenging. Plus, the city is very walkable, public transportation is prevalent, and if you are going from one entertainment venue to another, most people want to save their money for beer.

The trick is in trying it. Many people find that once they're afforded a promotional ride, it can be addictive.

"It's awesome," said William D. Luterman as he exited an Uber car with his wife, Marla, at 19th and Walnut on Rittenhouse Square. The couple were headed into the Ball on the Square, where some guests were presented free Uber rides as part of an introductory offer. "I'm thrilled that it's here. I'm going to use it personally as well as professionally."

Stephanie Hilton recently Uber-ed from her home in East Passyunk to Catahoula, a Queen Village Cajun and Creole pub, for her monthly Burger Club meeting.

"This was my first Uber ride," she said excitedly as she stepped out of the car. "It was a pretty good 15-minute ride. It was fast."

On the tail of Philadelphia's launch was the opening of a London Uber — right in time for the Summer Olympics. Kalanick said he has plans to set up shop in Dallas, Denver, and Atlanta. Last week, Uber announced that, in addition to the Town Cars, it was going to start using hybrids in San Francisco and New York — a cheaper option to the current ride.

Uber still has some hills to climb. Shortly after it began operating cars in January in Washington, D.C., taxi commissioner Ron Linton called the service illegal and had one of the driver's cars impounded. Uber continues its D.C. operations.

In Philadelphia, taxis are governed by the Taxi Cab and Limousine Commission, a division of the Philadelphia Parking Authority. Jim Ney, the commission's director, said that companies that operate as a limousine and taxi hybrid, like Uber, Cabulous, and Taxi Magic, are not legal.

"It may be an exciting form of transportation, but it is not authorized to operate here at this time," said Ney. The PPA is authorized to have 1,600 medallions — essentially licenses to pick up passengers, worth $400,000 each — operating in the city. "It is our job to make sure limousines provide limousine services and that taxi cabs do their thing. It protects the drivers so they don't have their business stolen by competitors who aren't authorized to operate here."

Kalanick said he hadn't heard any complaints from the PPA yet, and that he was operating aboveboard, simply trying to give folks a millennium way to travel.

"You look around and find things that can be done better in the world and you go set yourself to it," Kalanick said. "The industries that need the most help are the ones that are the most resistant."


Contact Elizabeth Wellington at 215-854-2704 or ewellington@phillynews.com, or on Twitter @ewellingtonphl. Read her blog, "Mirror Image," at philly.com/mirrorimage.