An Uber-Important Question
for Eau Claire to really hit it big, app-driven ride-sharing service would be a must
How do you know when you have grown up? Perhaps you attain a job title, you marry, you have children, or a gray hair appears on your head. Perhaps there is nothing tangible – only the reflection of life reveals a broader shift, rather than a tipping point.
If such an evaluation is hard for us as individuals, ponder a similar assessment for a municipality. There have been numerous indicators of so-called “urban” progress in Eau Claire, whether a mall (or two), a downtown revitalization, national critical and popular prestige for a locally bred musician, or a complex arts center project. Do any of these signify Eau Claire’s final transition from being a small city to the big time? How will we know when we are in the same league as the metropolises of our nation?
I think I know the answer: Uber.
Uber is available in nearly 250 cities/metro areas in the United States, including the Twin Cities, Milwaukee, Madison, and Green Bay – but not, of course, Eau Claire ... yet.
If there is a particular difference between the notable urban areas of the United States and the smaller, stand-alone cities and villages, it is the presence of the ride-sharing phenomenon of the 2010s. Today’s city-dwellers consider Uber as much a part of their society as the presence of skyscrapers and high rents. If you do not dwell in such a locale, “über” is a German word with an umlaut above the “u,” prefixed to an adjective or noun to indicate something being “over” or “beyond” a usual state of being. For example, Justin Vernon is über-successful for a Chippewa Valley artist.
If you do not know Uber – note the capital “U” and lack of umlaut – it’s an online company facilitating taxi-style rides without the structure of a taxi company. There’s no need for a fleet of yellow cars. Anyone can be an Uber driver with his or her vehicle; using an app, a driver gets an alert to pick up and drop off a passenger, then gets paid for providing that service. This business is all of seven years old, yet has challenged the hegemony of taxi organizations nationwide. Convenience for the rider is the other element of Uber’s success – use that app to schedule the ride, watch the vehicle approach you on the app, hop in to something likely more comfortable than a taxi, and get where you want to go.
As one of 14 remaining die-hard Time Magazine readers in Eau Claire, I noticed a growing trend in their coverage of Uber (and similar companies) throughout this decade. To get that much ink, you have to be a player in people’s lives. Yet, Time was the only way I came to know Uber: Eau Claire barely supports those old-school Limo Cab minivans, much less actual taxis. We simply are not big enough to need Uber. If you want to get from your house on Mitscher Avenue up to the Northern Wisconsin State Fair, just drive; the trip is not that long. Most of us still have our own vehicles, and they do a sufficient job of transportation.
Then came early August, when on a trip to the Twin Cities, the group I was with used black SUVs to navigate downtown Minneapolis. Eventually, I overheard the word from our leader: “Uber.” Whoa – I was actually riding an Uber ... or is it just “riding Uber”? Regardless of the terminology, I was experiencing one of the signature features of the modern urban lifestyle. While I have never been a small-town boy, this visit to the Cities was revelatory in a small way. The convenience of getting around without a car, with your phone, without taxi fares? Now I understand the rage.
To be all the rage, necessity is primary, and the needs of the Eau Claire metropolitan area are evolving. The trend of young, post-college professionals in growing cities involves downtown residences and less vehicle ownership. You want to get from the Phoenix Park lofts to catch a movie at Oakwood? You can follow the bus schedule, but otherwise, good luck ... especially biking uphill in winter. For now, the number of people in that predicament is likely small, yet those trends mean more will wonder how to get around. With all our cars and trucks and CUVs, there is a pool of potential drivers. Suddenly, the market materializes and Uber decides the time has come to plant its flag. To date, Uber is available in nearly 250 cities/metro areas in the United States, including the Twin Cities, Milwaukee, Madison, and Green Bay – but not, of course, Eau Claire ... yet.
The reality is that Eau Claire is adding population for the foreseeable future, and many of those future residents will desire on-demand ways to traverse the terrain of our area for basic needs. The tallest buildings in the downtown may never exceed the likes of The Lismore, but you will inevitably know when our town has crossed the tipping point into grown-up city status: When you get ready to go to the store and pick up your phone to schedule an Uber ... or just schedule Uber. Whatever the grammar, Eau Claire will be an über-city compared to what we have known.