Merging Into the Fast Lane?
arrival of ride-sharing services signifies city’s growth, but it’s not the only tipping point
A few months ago in this Opening Letter space, I wrote about what seemed the determining factor in Eau Claire’s ascendance to big-city status: the moment when Uber would choose to establish itself in the city. Go to larger municipalities, and you find Uber a part of daily life; go to smaller cities/villages/everywhere else, and people wonder why you are using an adverb without an attached noun. When combined with the many signs of societal progress in this city over the past decade or so, the arrival of Uber could be seen as the proverbial tipping point to saying that Eau Claire has “made it.”
There are only so many major metropolises to go around; if a company wants to expand, it needs to adapt to different environs. When all the sizable markets were taken, the medium and small markets were next.
Then one day in late February, the news came across the wire: Uber’s prime competitor, Lyft, was expanding to Eau Claire. Sure, this was not actually Uber, but this was akin to discovering MSNBC was in town to do a story: They may not be Fox News or CNN, but they are still nationally known. Evidently, ride sharing was viable in the Chippewa Valley. And Uber noticed: In early March, the uber-transport business said it too would be accessible for Eau Claire drivers.
It was all happening: Uber had arrived! And its smaller-but-still-significant archrival! Eau Claire was a big city! Soon we’ll have skyways and 747s flying to the airport and Super Bowls every decade! We’re all grown-up!
Well … OK, so Eau Claire did not fundamentally feel different in early March, unless you consider the cool down in temperatures at that time to have been a condition of Lyft’s and Uber’s co-establishment. At no point did I assess city traffic and logistics and decide abandoning my car for someone else’s ride was more convenient; such a ride may ultimately be easier on my schedule, but I still find no significant difference driving my car around town compared to when I returned from college in 2001.
I also do not fit the demographic of the optimal ride-sharing customer: someone who lives in a densely populated part of a city with limited access to parking and who (perhaps) may not be able to afford a vehicle. Mine is a 17-year-old car, totally paid-off and more-or-less functional with decent fuel efficiency and a garage at home, so I’m good. However, I am not everyone in Eau Claire – and certainly not a newcomer in the downtown who might expect to be able to hail an Uber or a Lyft.
The real reason for the expansion of these two into the Chippewa Valley was not a sudden revelation at their San Francisco headquarters that Eau Claire was in the same category as Milwaukee or Chicago. Rather, our lack of big city-ness was the attractive quality. These businesses have been facing regulatory pushback from larger cities with well-established taxi services, along with questions about job benefits for drivers (which will draw more coverage in a huge media market). Also, there are only so many major metropolises to go around; if a company wants to expand, it needs to adapt to different environs. When all the sizable markets were taken, the medium and small markets were next.
Thus, we became next for Lyft – along with La Crosse, Rochester, St. Cloud, and Mankato. Maybe the inclusion of Birmingham and Des Moines in that grouping makes us feel more special (though perhaps seeing Eau Claire on the list makes them wonder why they got lumped in with pleasant smaller cities). Uber followed up in La Crosse and Wausau; clearly, a pattern is evident.
I guess there is no clear “tipping point” to big-city status, especially when you rely upon the strategic growth decisions of a privately held company. What this does mean is that you have more options for how you get around town ... or potentially, more options for how you make money around town. You can try something that many folks nationwide have decided to be the most-efficient manner to get to their regular destination. Plus, we immediately get competition, so if one service is not to your liking, you can try the other (good to consider with the recent controversies enveloping Uber).
Meanwhile, I will keep driving my oldish car along Clairemont and Hastings while pondering the true signifier of grown-up city status. Anyone willing to join my bid for Super Bowl LVI in 2022 is welcome to become part of our future.