With his courtly manners — addressing women as “ma’am,” men as “sir” and leaping from the driver’s seat to open the door for his passengers — Mike Trombino could have stepped straight out of a 1950s film. The 26-year-old former college athlete sports close-cropped hair and an immaculate polo shirt.
The car, though, is strictly 21st century: Trombino tools around town in a Polaris GEM all-electric vehicle. And his clean-cut looks and polite demeanor coexist with another, distinctly modern persona: tech entrepreneur.
In October, Trombino quietly launched RideSlidr, an environmentally friendly downtown shuttle service. For now, riders must call for a pickup or hail one of his splashy six-passenger electric vehicles on the street, but Trombino says he’ll soon introduce a mobile app that will summon a Slidr with a tap on your smartphone’s screen.
RideSlidr will work much like Uber, with two exceptions: The new business operates only within a 2-square-mile area around downtown Asheville, and there’s no charge for the service itself: The drivers work strictly for tips.
If it succeeds in gaining a foothold in Asheville, RideSlidr will be the latest innovation in a rapidly changing local transportation landscape. Together with Uber, a proliferation of hotel shuttle services and a potential new city-financed shuttle, RideSlidr could help reduce traffic congestion, mitigate parking woes and improve the overall downtown experience. Looking further ahead, expanded countywide transit options and, eventually, self-driving vehicles may offer even more choices.
It remains to be seen how much these new possibilities will reduce transportation’s environmental impact and reshape the city’s physical landscape, as some observers predict. But Trombino and others say a profound behavioral change is already underway — and its influence will only increase in years to come.
That influence, however, could be creating new problems as well. Critics say these new business models may be turning a profit on the backs of underpaid drivers.
Not so fast
Initially, Trombino planned to make money from his fare-free service by selling large-scale advertising on the exterior of his shuttles and digital ads on iPads mounted in the seatbacks.
But that business model hit a snag at the end of October. “Third-party advertising isn’t permitted on the exterior of commercial vehicles operating in the city,” Transportation Director Ken Putnam explains.
Trombino, though, says he’s confident his basic idea can still work. He’ll focus on selling the digital ads, which city officials have said is OK. Trombino must also seek a franchise agreement with the city, which will take at least until January, says Putnam. The franchise fee is $1 per day ($365 per year).
In the meantime, the budding entrepreneur has temporary permission to operate while he jumps through the various hoops; Putnam says state law requires such agreements to be heard at a minimum of two City Council meetings. Another operator, Land of Sky Shuttle, received a franchise agreement last Nov. 17, but Putnam says the owner hasn’t been able to get that service off the ground.
RideSlidr operates seven days a week, from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. “We’ll have more drivers out on the road on Friday and Saturday nights,” Trombino explains. “When the wait times are longer, people are less likely to use us.”
On the go
With a maximum speed of 26 mph, Trombino’s electric vehicles don’t travel roads with speed limits over 35, and the limited range means they won’t stray too far from the South Slope base station. Still, the service area extends north from downtown as far as Greenlife, Trader Joe’s and Harris Teeter on Merrimon Avenue. Riders seeking a lift to the grocery stores or Staples are welcome, Trombino says. To the west, RideSlidr serves the River Arts District as far as New Belgium Brewing. South of downtown, the service covers South Slope, Biltmore Village and parts of Kenilworth.
Pets are welcome on the carts, but smoking is not. Eventually, Trombino hopes to equip some vehicles with ramps and extra space to accommodate wheelchairs. The only passengers he’s not keen on serving are folks whose rude or dangerous behavior puts the driver at risk. That could get the person’s riding privileges revoked, notes the business owner, “but we always give people the benefit of the doubt.”
And though he hails from Florida, Trombino isn’t worried about operating in winter. He plans to install heaters in his vehicles in December and says the service will transport passengers in most weather conditions, barring ice and significant snowfall. “If it’s just a little snow, I don’t see the problem with that.”
Trombino believes RideSlidr and Uber can coexist productively in Asheville. “I actually drove an Uber driver a couple of days ago,” he says. “He thought Slidr seemed really cool. He doesn’t like taking people up the hill and dropping them off. Their main thing is taking people longer distances.”
Welcome to Asheville
Spend a few days checking any of the Facebook pages targeting Asheville Uber contractors, and one thing becomes clear: These drivers are astonishingly upbeat about helping people get around the area. “I LOVE meeting visitors and locals,” writes Denise Hayes, adding, “Best job I’ve ever had.”
On the whole, Uber drivers seem to feel that helping promote the area is a key part of their mission. Brevard native Russell Badger, who recently retired from a career in manufacturing, says he’d “had enough of corporate America.” He’s been driving for a couple of months now and says, “I have a lot of fun doing this. A big part of it is being an ambassador for WNC.”
If Uber drivers are Asheville’s ambassadors, the city’s gleaming new breweries are the embassies. “I pick up more people destined for the breweries than any other group,” Badger reports. And though he’s not much of a beer drinker, he says Uber has helped him find his own niche in the new beer economy.
“Of course, we’ve always had Biltmore House and the outdoors, but now a lot of people come here solely for the beers and the breweries,” notes Badger, saying that’s particularly true with “the big guys” — Sierra Nevada and New Belgium.
It’s not yet clear how much such services have reduced the incidence of impaired driving. According to spokesperson Christina Hallingse, the Asheville Police Department “is very grateful that services like Uber, and taxicab companies are present throughout the city, providing extra ways for people who are impaired to safely arrive at their final destination. Unfortunately, we do not have any statistics to show what kind of impact these services have had.”
Anecdotally, though, drivers and passengers alike say Uber has done much to keep those who’ve had one too many local brews out of the driver’s seat. “I work door at a bar and see about five or six Uber pickups every night,” Adam Strange wrote on the Asheville Politics Facebook page.
Driver Tom Bargeloh says he’s heard that The Cliffs at Walnut Cove community has a weekly Uber night. “It’s a bunch of couples who like to go out. They’ll call two or three Ubers, and then they don’t have to worry about designated drivers or any of that.”
Bargeloh says his passengers’ most popular drop-off point is Wicked Weed on Biltmore Avenue. Other frequent destinations include Catawba Brewing Co., Tupelo Honey Cafe, Thirsty Monk Brewery, Biltmore Estate, the airport and UNC Asheville.
Bargeloh, who retired here from Los Alamos, N.M., says he enjoys ferrying a diverse group of tourists and locals around town in his black BMW X5. He overheard one customer, a Grove Park Inn guest, call his recent divorce “the best $25 million I ever spent!” The next passenger, a server who’d lost his license after a second DWI conviction, “had basically no money at all,” Bargeloh recalls.
On the money
As a job, however, contracting with Uber doesn’t exactly leave you on easy street, some local drivers say.
Michael, a veteran driver who asked that his last name be withheld, says he’s logged over 2 million miles behind the wheel of a tractor-trailer and another million driving smaller vehicles. He and other drivers say Uber has reduced its pay rates several times since entering the Asheville market in August 2014. Back then, drivers got 80 percent of $1.85 per mile.
After the most recent cuts in January, the standard per-mile rate dropped from $1.25 to 85 cents. And drivers who began contracting with the company after last November get only 75 percent of the per-mile rate, plus the same percentage of both the $1.50 base fee and a 15 cents-per-minute charge.
Uber drivers earn more during periods of high demand, such as late on Friday and Saturday nights, when rates can more than triple. That gives them an incentive to work the busiest times. And for customers, notes driver Ian Hilley, “Uber has rates so low that even when it surges, it’s still manageable.”
But Wendy Inglefield, who says she’s been driving for the company since it launched here, thinks surge pricing often hits those the hardest who can least afford it. “The surge is always on, and highest, when bartenders, wait staff and other service industry workers need a ride home after 2 a.m.,” she explains. “I often see these exhausted potential riders sitting on sidewalks staring at their phones, waiting for the surge to go away.”
Higher base rates, Inglefield maintains, wouldn’t discourage tourists from using the service in Asheville, since they’re generally coming from areas where Uber’s prices are higher.
In any case, Uber drivers don’t appear to be getting rich: Several said they end up averaging about $8 per hour when you factor in the operating expenses, insurance and slow periods.
Uber initially stressed the cash-free nature of its service and said tipping wasn’t necessary, but recent court decisions have forced the company to change its tune. Uber still says tipping isn’t expected, but drivers may accept tips and even post signs in their vehicles indicating that tipping is appreciated.
Michael, meanwhile, worries that carrying cash will make drivers more of a target for robberies. He says he’d rather have a five-star customer rating than a tip, but most drivers say they appreciate both.
More than vomiting drunken passengers and traffic jams, drivers seem to resent the company’s constantly changing rules and opaque communication system. Uber eliminated its help line for answering drivers’ questions and resolving problems related to payment or other logistics: Drivers must now email their concerns, sometimes waiting several hours or more for a response. Some also maintain that Uber’s continuous efforts to recruit new drivers have oversaturated the market.
It’s hard to know what the company’s position on these complaints might be, since multiple calls and emails to Uber’s Corporate Communications Department and North Carolina communications team went unanswered.
Concerns about how Uber treats its contractors have led Asheville piano teacher and transportation activist Kim Roney to spurn the service, even though she doesn’t own a car and gets around by bike and public transportation. “Using active transportation is ideal but not always an option, depending on the weather, time limitations, hours of public transit and personal ability,” says Roney, who serves on the city’s Multimodal Transportation Commission. “Many people, including tourists, see smartphone apps like Uber as a safe way to get home that is more affordable than a cab, but that’s not always the case, especially during peak times when they drastically hike the rates.”
Roney says she doesn’t use Uber “because of their history of lack of respect for their contracted drivers, because they have increased profit by cutting costs like taxes and insurance, and because many people are driving from out of town to take advantage of driving for Uber in Asheville.” When she needs to travel by car, Roney explains, she calls a locally owned cab company, often requesting a driver she knows.
Ian Wilker, who says he’s been driving for Uber since May of last year, wrote on Facebook that he finds the work satisfying and believes the service has “greatly improved our community’s transportation system.” At the same time, he charges, the company sees its drivers as a commodity — and its responsibility in the marketplace as limited to obeying the laws of supply and demand. Uber, says Wilker, “constantly pushes the boundaries of how much of the costs and risks involved in transporting its customers it can offload onto its drivers.”
For her part, Inglefield says she’s made her last trip for the company, adding, “I am going to focus my energy instead on getting Lyft [a competitor] to Asheville.”
Asked about the possibility, company representative Mary Caroline Pruitt said, “We’ve been gauging driver interest in Asheville, and while we have no immediate news to share at this time, we look forward to bringing Lyft to Asheville and other cities in North Carolina in the future.”
Uber and RideSlidr aren’t the only transportation providers that have responded to Asheville’s growing popularity, points out Stephanie Pace Brown, executive director of the Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau. Local hotels and motels have greatly expanded their downtown shuttle services; hostelries as far afield as the Holiday Inn Biltmore West (at Exit 44 off Interstate 40) now offer guests downtown transportation for $5 per person round-trip.
The Crowne Plaza offers a similar service, but an online rate sheet shows that, for trips to the airport, Uber would usually be cheaper and less complicated to access.
The new Hilton Garden Inn on College Street uses a spiffy six-seat electric shuttle vehicle wrapped in a graphic showing Asheville’s cityscape. “Guests enjoy it because it’s different,” explains General Manager Dan Jordan, “and Asheville residents like it because it produces no emissions.” He expects demand for the service, which covers the downtown area, to continue to grow.
Asheville’s Gray Line Trolley Tours were an early car-free option for sightseers, notes Brown, and quirky options like LaZoom and the Pubcycle add plenty of zest to the business of moving bodies around town. The visitors bureau is also advocating for a local bike rental program, she reveals.
Still, continues Brown, the addition of Uber helps accommodate peak demand. In the past, she says, “That’s been a challenge for this destination. When we have a big influx of people who want to leave their car behind for a big event, we haven’t had enough transportation options.”
Making sure Asheville has the right types of transportation, she believes, “is a balancing act.” While Uber’s flexibility and ease of entry for drivers adds something valuable to the local market, she says, it’s “worthwhile to preserve taxi service and the legacy regulations that go along with it,” such as requiring more extensive background checks and commercial insurance.
According to Michael Boshart, who says he’s driven for the locally owned AVL Taxi for the past six years, his company is known for its reliability. And like other local cab companies, AVL Taxi features uniform pricing, regardless of the time of day: a $3.50 base fee, plus $2.50 per mile and $2 per passenger over two.
Cabdrivers buy their own gas and get half the fare plus tips. Unlike Uber drivers, though, they don’t pay for wear and tear on the vehicle, car repairs or insurance, says Boshart.
“Uber has made everybody step up,” he comments. “Cabdrivers have had to stop being that rude cabdriver that everyone expects.” They also lack the flexibility Uber offers: His company’s drivers, says Boshart, must work a 12-hour shift. And while they can make up to $300-$400 per night, he continues, “There’s no guarantee. You always make money doing this, but that might be $20 for 12 hours.” Cabbies, he says, make their best money around 3 a.m., when the bars let out and most Uber drivers have already gone home.
Adam Charnack, who chairs the city’s Transit Committee, says Uber’s presence should have “zero impact” on Asheville’s ongoing commitment to providing ample public transport. Surge pricing aside, a ride with Uber is “at least five to 10 times more expensive” than taking the bus, he points out. And while Uber has made it easier for folks to get around without a car, that only bolsters the argument for investing more resources in public transit, Charnack maintains.
Transportation, concludes Brown, “is not about just one solution: It’s a complicated dynamic that has to be studied holistically. … It’s good that the city is looking at a variety of options.”
In January, City Council adopted a 20-year strategic vision that included this appealing picture: “Whether you drive a car, take the bus, ride a bike or walk, getting around Asheville is easy. Public transportation is widespread, frequent and reliable. Sidewalks, greenways and bike facilities get us where we want to go safely and keep us active and healthy. It is easy to live in Asheville without a car and still enjoy economic, academic and social success.”
Council member Cecil Bothwell was a driving force behind the creation of that vision, but left to his own devices he would have pushed it even further.
“We need to start thinking about when, not if, we will ban human drivers downtown,” Bothwell asserts, citing Uber’s efforts to move autonomous vehicles closer to everyday reality. In Pittsburgh, the company is already testing self-driving vehicles on the roads, though human beings sit in the driver’s seat, ready to take over in an instant.
Comparing the shift to the adoption of other previously unimaginable technologies such as smartphones, Bothwell foresees a huge change over the next two decades in how people get around. “The thing about private cars,” he says, “is that they are parked something like 95 percent of the time. They represent an enormous resource investment for little gain.”
The prospect of abundant autonomous vehicles providing on-demand transportation is a big reason Bothwell believes the city should stop investing in parking garages — and why he thinks the major widening planned for Interstate 26 through Arden and the I-26 connector project through Asheville are misguided.
According to Bothwell, America has already reached “peak car.” In the future, he says, autonomous public transportation, on-demand taxis and private vehicles will use existing road space much more efficiently, reducing the capacity needed to keep traffic flowing smoothly. And with fewer cars on the roads, continuously circulating to pick up their passengers wherever they are, argues Bothwell, “You don’t want to build new 75-year parking decks if the parking problem is not going to be there in 25 years.”
Putnam, the city’s transportation director, points out that it’s hard to plan for a technology that doesn’t even exist yet.
But in the meantime, says Bothwell, even existing transportation technologies can offer new solutions to vexing problems like affordable housing. Instead of building new affordable housing in the city center, where costs are high and land is scarce, it would make more sense to create new transportation options to help workers access housing outside of downtown, he maintains.
Trombino, the RideSlidr entrepreneur, isn’t focused solely on Asheville. He’s already working to launch his next-generation transportation service in two other cities, which he declines to name at this point. One is in this region, he says, while the other is “a little farther away.”
With funding from a bank and a private investor, Trombino says there are multiple approaches to providing electric vehicle shuttle services in downtown areas, and he’s open to considering “whatever makes this business work. I’m exploring what’s most cost-effective and most beneficial. We have to look at both sides of that spectrum.”
Meanwhile, on the street, pedestrians and motorists alike turn to stare when RideSlidr vehicles pass by, Trombino reports. “People say, ‘What the heck is that?’ They’re always coming up to the cars and asking about the service. We give them a business card and tell them our app is coming soon.”
The company has a handful of reviews on Facebook, nearly all of them glowing. “Took it tonight, and it was perfect for lazy people like me!!!” one reviewer wrote.
“This is going to be a very successful big hit,” Trombino predicts.