Nice Ride

It was 1 a.m. at Bangor International Airport and Bangor business owner Betsy Lundy was beginning to realize she was in some trouble.

Her flight had just landed and she was having a hard time getting a ride home. Her husband couldn’t pick her up because he was watching their three small children, and Lundy, who figured she could just call a cab from the airport, was striking out.

Then Lundy, the co-owner of the Maine Cloth Diaper Co. and the Central Street Farmhouse, thought of Uber, the online transportation company that had officially expanded into the Bangor area last March. She opened the Uber app on her smartphone, wondering if any of the company’s drivers were still available at this late hour. She was in luck. A University of Maine student who had been the designated sober person at a fraternity party that night hadn’t figured he would wind up picking up a stranded mom at the airport. It worked for both of them.

“In general, Uber gets there faster,” Lundy said. “I like that I can [use the app] and see exactly where my car is. People always talk about Millennials not wanting to get on the phone and talk to anybody. I’m not even a Millennial, but I want to press a button and have the car materialize.”

Uber, an international company founded in 2009 that has its headquarters in San Francisco, was slow to make inroads into rural Maine but is starting to catch on in the greater Bangor area. The peer-to-peer ridesharing service may seem like a natural fit in more urban locales, but there is certainly an audience for it here, according to Carlie Waibel, a spokesperson for Uber New England.

“Our expansion and growth has really been exciting in New England. On-demand transportation is really convenient. It can be very affordable and also reliable,” she said. “And specifically in an area like Maine, where there are fewer transportation options, Uber plays a very significant role.”

Both the riders and the drivers are Uber customers, which is one essential way that the company differs from traditional taxi services. Prospective Uber drivers sign up online and go through vetting that includes a criminal background check and a check to make sure they have a license, proof of vehicle ownership and insurance. Riders use a smartphone application or their computer to access the service, and are able to rate drivers based on their trip experience on a one to five-star scale. Drivers also rate riders, and receive a percentage of the fare that is paid through the Uber app.   

Michael Sturgeon, 58, of Old Town, was one of the first Uber drivers in the greater Bangor area — now there may be as many as 70. As of mid-February, he had logged just over 2,000 rides in his orange 2007 Ford Edge SUV. When Sturgeon started, though, the company was new here and trying to catch on in the tourist destination of Bar Harbor without great success. There weren’t a lot of customers, and some of the drivers weren’t from Maine and got lost on Mount Desert Island’s back roads. Sturgeon spent a lot of time hanging around Bar Harbor waiting for someone to need a ride. Nevertheless, he had an idea that the service could be a big hit around the University of Maine and in Bangor.

“Uber said, ‘We’ve done the market research and we don’t think it’s really viable,’” he remembered. “Well, I said, ‘Do you mind if I try?’”

So, in the fall of 2015, Sturgeon did some guerrilla marketing for Uber. He put a bunch of flyers out at Orono’s big off-campus student housing complexes, letting students know that Uber had arrived, and gave them promotional codes for ride discounts.

“It caught on like wildfire,” he said. “I was really, really busy. We didn’t have enough drivers and I was driving like a one-armed paperhanger.”

Sturgeon recruited more drivers, and eventually Uber decided to make the greater Bangor market official. The company recruited lots of drivers and started out by paying them $1.80 per mile and 16 cents per minute. Recently, Uber dropped the base mile rate to $1.20 per mile, a move that has irked many drivers.

“There’s some disgruntlement,” Sturgeon said.

He’s not happy about the mile rate drop either, of course. But he is clear that his primary motivation to be an Uber driver is not financial. Sturgeon used to be the assistant chief for the Old Town Fire Department and said that he has seen more than his share of bad car accidents.

“Part of what I like about Uber is the interaction with the college kids, and the fact that I’m contributing to them getting home safely,” he said. “I’ve got kids in college, too. And I’m thankful that they have access to a safe ride home with a reliable driver and a safe vehicle. That’s part of the reason I prefer the Orono student crowd. They’re trying to be responsible.”

Nowadays, Sturgeon works from home in the software industry, and has a lot of job flexibility. That means he can often leave his Uber app on to wait for rides. The money he earns goes into a special savings account that is earmarked for fun things. Last summer, he and his family went on a trip to Greece with the help of his Uber earnings (and where they used Uber to get around, too).

Sturgeon is much more enthusiastic about Uber than the extra money alone can explain. He likes the people he meets, even the intoxicated college students, and the conversations he has when they are in his car. He likes it so much that it can even be hard to turn his app off at night.

“They all have a story to tell. I’ll have students talking about their challenges. They’ll ask you what you would do. They’re often looking for some wisdom,” he said. “It’s sort of like a drug. You know there’s one more ride out there. It’s 2:30 in the morning, and I’m driving back to my house. You would think I’d shut my app off. But I don’t. I’ve got to go get that last ride.”

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