Uber: The next big thing in Tampa Bay area transportation

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Ask residents of the Tampa Bay area about transportation, and you’ll likely hear some similar themes.

The traffic here is terrible!  

When is light rail coming?

When do we vote on the Greenlight Pinellas plan?

You should forget what you know — or think you know — about transportation and the Tampa Bay region. The next big thing in this area could be Uber.

Before we dive too deeply into what, exactly, Uber is, let’s remember that transportation solutions in this region are multilayered, complex — and there’s more than one.

The new, improved bus routes as proposed in the Greenlight plan are a critically important component of a larger vision. Light rail is certainly a part of that vision as well. As St. Petersburg City Councilman Jim Kennedy said here in September, there needs to be an understanding that this is not just about light rail, or about new bus schedules — it is a very comprehensive overhaul of a very complex set of systems.  

So what is Uber? And why do we need it?

Uber is an app.

Okay, Uber is more than an app — it is a technological innovation and a technology start-up, but the practical part of it is an app. Using the app on your smart-phone, you can hail a GPS-tracked sedan, get updates on the car’s location via text message. Uber contracts with local drivers, installs the software, and lets them operate independently, taking a cut of the fare.

As more and more people get involved in the conversation about transportation, the idea of more cars on the road somehow becomes a bit uncomfortable. Aren’t we supposed to be talking about using buses and light rail, taking cars off the road?

Yes, but we’re also supposed to be talking about innovative ideas, and Uber is just that.

Indeed, Uber has already tried to come to Tampa — in 2012, for the Republican National Convention. Unfortunately, the transportation authorities in Hillsborough — who seemed awfully quick to pass the buck, or the fifty bucks as the case may be — set a minimum price for Uber to operate: fifty bucks.

Uber does use minimum charges in other cities where it operates, but couldn’t abide the fifty dollar minimum in Tampa.

The setback in Tampa isn’t stopping Uber. They are operational in Jacksonville.

And they have a powerful political ally in the Tampa Bay area: State Senator Jeff Brandes (R-St. Petersburg), who is also the Chair of the Transportation Committee. Earlier this year, Brandes had tough words for the Hillsborough Public Transportation Commission (the organizational body that drove away Uber).

“Here’s a company that will transcend regions, that wants to operate in our backyard, that has a phenomenal product that people are using around the country, and we’re going to be considered a backwater if we don’t bring them here,” said Brandes, speaking to Creative Loafing’s Mitch Perry.

It is one of those rare areas where conservatives — like Brandes — and liberals can wholly agree: it is time for innovative solutions to complex issues like transportation. Uber is not the whole answer, but it is a necessary part.  

We should add Uber to the conversation.