WASHINGTON -- Reagan Rucker knew she wanted to join the thousands of local motorists hauling strangers around in their cars the first time she took an UBERx ride as a passenger.
The single mother from Northeast Washington had been out of work three years last fall when a friend took her to run errands using the smartphone-based ride-share service, which links people needing rides with car owners willing to give them -- for a price. Suddenly, the onetime waitress could envision herself driving for dollars.
"I said 'Let me try this,'" said Rucker, 40, who took on a $300 monthly payment for a 2009 Hyundai Elantra (to meet Uber's requirements for late-model, four-door sedans), went through criminal-background and driving-record checks, and began her unexpected career as a driver for hire. By her third week, she'd logged 51.5 hours and cleared $1,280 after Uber's 20 percent cut. That's a $64,000-a-year clip, if she could keep up the pace of driving nights, weekends and while her two teenage daughters are in school.
"That was a lot of driving," Rucker said. "Money is a motivator."
Rucker is among the flood of local drivers flocking to join ride-share companies that have recently arrived in the Washington area such as UBERx, Sidecar and Lyft (whose cars sport bushy pink mustaches on the grille). The firms won't give exact numbers, but an UBERx spokesman said thousands of Washington area drivers have signed up since the service launched in September. Unlike Uber's more upscale "black car" service, UBERx relies on modest sedans at rates meant to be competitive with regular cab fares.
City officials and traditional taxi companies are scrambling to respond to the upstarts. The D.C. Taxicab Commission on Wednesday took up proposed new restrictions on ride-share drivers, from limiting the number of hours they can drive and increasing the amount of their liability coverage to allowing taxis to mimic Uber's dynamic pricing model in some circumstances. Proposals under consideration by the D.C. Council with the most support would leave the driving hours alone but mandate higher insurance requirements, background checks, and zero-tolerance drug and alcohol standards.
The industry, meanwhile, is trying to sow doubts about the amateur hacks through a "Who's Driving You?" social media campaign funded by the Rockville, Md.-based Taxicab, Limousine and Paratransit Association.
None of that has stopped mobs of students, waiters, translators and former cabbies from vacuuming their mats, applying the Armor All and opening the rear doors to tech-savvy passengers looking for new ways to get around. Flexible hours, low startup costs and the security of cash-free transactions are attracting drivers who wouldn't consider driving a regular taxi.
Rucker never thought about becoming a cabbie. But she is fine responding to calls from preregistered customers using the Uber smartphone app. The company handles the money, billing the passenger's credit card on file and then paying -- minus Uber's share -- into Rucker's account.
"I feel very safe," Rucker said. "They have a record of everyone who gets in my car and everything that goes on."
A recent daylong circumnavigation of Washington via UBERx -- 10 hours of hopscotching the region with 10 drivers, all whom responded randomly to calls on the app, plus a few earlier reconnaissance rides -- opened up a windshield view into the pleasures and pitfalls of turning the family ride into a profit center.
The driver corps of UBERx included an aspiring respiratory therapist, an accounting student, an official at a Washington university, an Army Reservist who works for a federal agency, a drugstore clerk, an economist and a foreign language teacher. The sample looked much like the region's traditional corps of taxi drivers: mostly men, mostly foreign born.
"Immigrants from Africa and the Middle East have been the early adopters," said Zuhairah Washington, manager of Uber's local operations. "The marketing so far has been word-of-mouth."
The service works just like Uber's original app-based system. A user can see how many UBERx cars are in the vicinity on a dynamic map, along with an approximate response time. After someone requests a ride, the software names the driver, the type of car and an estimated arrival time. Downtown, cars arrived in five to 10 minutes, on average. In the suburbs, response times varied depending on the time of day and number of drivers in the area. In one case, it took almost 30 minutes for a car to reach Takoma Park, Md.
Ehsan Khan, who was born in Pakistan but grew up in Fairfax County, Va., was a long-haul truck driver when his father's failing heath required him to find a job closer to home. He'd like to drive dump trucks for a construction company, but until he finds that gig, he's picking up fares in his 2013 Camry.
The biggest challenge for Khan has been learning to please type-A Washington passengers. One rider apologized for being a self-described (unmentionable body part) even as he insisted that Khan lay on his horn and cut off other cars in their rush to Union Station. Khan's revenge was subtle.
"I gave him one star," Khan said, referring to the one-to-five scale that Uber drivers and passengers use to rate each other at the end of every ride. Riders see a driver's score when they call for a car; drivers can use the scale to avoid rude riders.
"If you see a rating of 3.2, 3.4, you know there is something going on with that customer," said Michael Belet, who put his Camry into service after years driving a taxi in Montgomery County, Md. His rating is 4.8.
Drivers obsess about these approval scores. Belet refuses tips, asking for a "five" rating instead. Sanjiv Kumar keeps his back seat stocked with bottles of water and copies of India Currents magazine. Ali Jaghori, a former Afghan translator who now lives in Prince William County, Va., lined the rear floorboards of his Toyota Rav4 with Oriental rugs.
If a driver's rating dips below 4.7, Uber offers coaching on customer service or mastering the local road network. Novice navigators getting lost is a common complaint, according to drivers. If the ratings worsen, the company has been known to boot people from the system.
Eyob Tesfa, an accounting student at Strayer University who has been driving about 25 hours a week since February, tells of one friend who was cut off. "She got into an argument with a passenger, and he gave her a zero," he said. "She was fired."
Lawmakers in cities and states across the country are struggling to get a handle on ride-share services, which are wreaking havoc on the old taxi order. The startups say they're a new business model and should be allowed to operate without government interference.
But cab companies and some government officials say the lack of oversight gives these services an unfair advantage and may pose a risk to passengers. In Washington, for example, prospective cabdrivers may spend more than $600 on training, testing and licensing. Once they start working, they are required to renew their special license each year and have their vehicle inspected regularly.
UBERx drivers need little more than a clean driving record, a relatively new car and the smartphone that Uber issues for a $100 deposit.
Belet said he grew tired of paying $105 a day to rent his taxi and jumped at the chance to use his own car. Many of his fellow drivers, he said, are switching: "If you go by the Barwood garage now, you see a lot of parked taxis."
Barwood, a Kensington, Md.-based taxi service, acknowledged in a statement that "a small handful of drivers" have defected to its unregulated competitors. But the company insists that the "majority of our drivers choose to stay with Barwood because they are focused on serving all kinds of customers at all income levels with strong consumer and safety protections in place."
Tesfa said that his family -- including his father, who worked as a cabbie in Ethiopia -- wasn't happy about him picking up strangers. He allowed that gripping the wheel for hours and tapping the brakes through endless traffic can be exhausting. But with a year to go before he graduates, he's committed.
"I don't want to be a driver. I want to be an accountant," said the 35-year-old Silver Spring, Md., resident. "But this is something I can do while I'm studying."
Tesfa picks up passengers between classes and drives until the clubs close on Friday and Saturday nights. Mesaye Debele, who is looking for his first job as a respiratory therapist after graduating from Salisbury University in Maryland, gets in about 30 hours a week but won't drive during party hours.
"Maybe some people are drunk, so I turn my phone off after 9," Debele said. "I like to keep my car clean. I buy my air fresheners in bulk packs now."