Ridesharing opens up opportunities for Buffalo entrepreneurs

For years, ridesharing has been a convenience denied to people in upstate New York. Often when out-of-town visitors come to places like Buffalo, Rochester or Albany, they were shocked to learn that their ride-hailing apps were suddenly useless.

But no longer will visitors feel like they’ve stepped back in time after they deboard a plane, train or bus across the Empire State. As of Thursday, rideshare apps like Uber and Lyft now are permitted to operate outside New York City – the only area of the state that previously allowed them. 
And their arrival heralds a new opportunity for entrepreneurs, Thousands of Buffalonians have already signed up to become drivers for the service providers. Uber alone has aid it has had more than 50,000 people apply.

Advocates of ridesharing like State Senator Patrick Gallivan said the services will “create jobs, provide reliable transportation options for residents and visitors and help reduce the number of DWI’s”  in a press release.
Proponents also claim that increased competition will help consumers, leading traditional taxi companies to implement measures to improve their own services. 
Opponents argue the companies could cripple the taxi industry as a whole, decreasing revenues and poaching drivers. But, beyond this debate, for many area entrepreneurs, the legalization of ridesharing here means one thing: an economic opportunity that many are embracing.

Historically, drivers in other cities where ridesharing is established have pursued various paths to grow their businesses. Some drivers have opted to jump into the rideshare industry full steam ahead, quitting their jobs to pursue driving as a career path. Others dipped their toes at first, often to earn a little extra side money. With ridesharing unavailable upstate until now, there is no data as to what drivers can anticipate earning. But downstate, drivers reported earning on average about $30 per ride – the highest in the country. Comparable cities to Buffalo like Cleveland and Pittsburgh showed earnings averaging about $13 per trip.

UpstartNY spoke with three people who have signed up to become rideshare drivers in advance of the launch this holiday weekend. We asked them what motivated them to do so and what their expectations are before accepting their first fares.

Mike Tronconi, 28

Buffalo resident Mike Tronconi, 28, signed up to become a driver for both Uber and Lyft. He has previous experience using rideshare apps in cities like Austin and Nashville and across the border in Canada. “Each time I’ve used [an app] it’s been pretty simple, cheaper, and easier than a taxi service,” Tronconi says.

He says that flexibility and extra money were his motivations behind becoming a rideshare driver and that the application and vetting process to join was fairly easy.

“I tried to do it when we had Lyft in Buffalo for like a month a few years ago,” Tronconi says. “Signing up for Lyft was a process done directly through the app. Uber was a little tougher – I think they were getting swarmed with applications for upstate drivers all at once. But all in al,l I think the entire process took maybe two weeks to get approved.”

Tronconi says he plans to drive to supplement his full-time income as a benefit claims employee at BlueCross BlueShield of WNY.

“For me, I’ll probably do anywhere between ten to 20 hours per week,” he says. “I think Uber had a lot of drivers in the area sign up, so I am not expecting a ton of demand. If I can get an extra $150 to $200 a week, that’d be fine.”

When asked how he felt becoming a driver would affect his personal life, Tronconi says it wasn’t too large of a commitment. He added he hopes the availability of the service improves outsiders’ opinion of the area.

“I think especially for Buffalo, it’ll help out our perception from the outside,” he says. “We’re often thought of the little sister of New York City in this state. But if there’s a Bills game, people will be coming in from out of town and want to be able to use a ridesharing app. And that’s great that they can now.”

Nick O’Connor, 34

Tonawanda resident Nick O’Connor, 34, has signed up to become a driver for Lyft but not Uber. Co-owner of the startup Rust Belt Love Paperie & Wedding Co-op, a paper and event design studio, the father of two said he is going to see how things go with one before committing to another.

“I did some research before signing up and found lots of pros and cons for both companies,” O’Connor says. “Lyft seems like there is a little less work available but a little better money for the drivers.”

O’Connor says he has no experience using a ridesharing app but knows many people who have, including his wife and company co-founder Alyson.

“Alyson has told me the experience she had using one in Cleveland,” he says. “We have family come in from out of town all the time and they’re always surprised when they pull up the app and can’t access it – everyone has ridesharing but us.”

Before starting Rust Belt Love with Alyson, Nick was general manager of two local transportation companies. That experience led to familiarity with driving routes in the region and relationships with independent driving contractors. He says that he is looking forward to being back on the road on a part-time basis because he enjoys driving and meeting new people.

“I used to do similar work and I honestly have a passion for driving,” he says. “I also love the 15-minute relationship that ridesharing provides. In 15 minutes you find out if you’re compatible with folks in a low-commitment conversation.”

Like Tronconi, O’Connor said he felt the signup process was fairly easy. He sent in some photos of his vehicle, insurance, license and registration and then waited for a reply. He found out he passed preliminary verification steps within 24-hours, then signed up for an optional orientation class.

“It’s a pretty quick turnaround to see whether you’re a go or not,” O’Connor added. “And I wanted to go to the orientation to get face-to-face answers for my questions. It was weird at the beginning to not talk to a single person. Every job I have applied for I have talked to a human.”

O’Connor guessed about 15 hours a week would probably be at the high end of his availability and has hopes to make around $30 an hour. He came to that goal after taking into account the costs incurred by drivers including vehicle maintenance and fuel.

Being busy juggling family life and a business, O'Connor adds he will be discussing with his wife how many hours he can commit to rideshare driving to make sure it doesn’t interfere with his priorities.

“Realistically I want to try and take advantage of this opportunity at times that do not interfere with family time – I’m a family-first kind of guy,” he says. “I would rather do this when they’re in bed or on a lazy Saturday morning. I would give up ridesharing all together if it does impact that.”

Ashleigh Dopp, 34

Kenmore resident Ashleigh Dopp, 34, works full-time for Stampede Global, an AV and IT systems company. She signed up to become a driver for Uber having more experience with that app as a customer than Lyft.

“I mean they’re pretty great, to be honest,” Dopp says. “Even if there is an overcharge, the customer service seems to get right back to you. It’s easy to use functionality-wise and is pretty on point with location and time estimates.”

Dopp said having an extra source of income and one that she could access during her free time were her major motivations for joining Uber. And like Tronconi and O’Connor, she had a fairly easy time registering.

Dopp plans to drive primarily for UberBLACK customers, who seek higher-end vehicles for their rides and are often business or date night-related clients. She said she thinks that’ll improve her experience and safety as a driver.

“I’m not going out in the dead of night for a pick-up,” she says. “But you take risks no matter what you do. And through the app you kind of have a real-time diary of your night, which is good.”

She plans to start driving a couple hours each week for extra “pocket change” and is looking forward to meeting new people through the experience.

“You could be that driver that drove a Bills player to Buffalo from Chicago,” she jokes. “Meeting new people will be the best part, especially out-of-towners.

“And I think that having ridesharing is going to help grow pride in the community, especially for people like me that take a lot of pride in our city.”

Read more articles by Steven Jagord.

After studying journalism at Buffalo State College, Amherst resident Steven Jagord spent four years as editor of a community newspaper covering the Buffalo suburb of Clarence, N.Y. He currently is the program manager for the Pride Center of Western New York, a nonprofit that serves the local LGBTQ community. He and his husband, Patrick, have a yellow Lab named Dexter.  
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