Uber launches rides in Columbia

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COLUMBIA - The popular personal car service Uber launched in Columbia Thursday.

The app operates in cities across the country and abroad. It allows riders to request a car using GPS and pay straight from their cell phones.

Deputy City Manager Tony St. Romaine said the city just found out the company was planning to launch this week.

"I was very shocked to hear on Tuesday, when they arranged a conference call, that they were going to start operations today, Thursday, which was very much a surprise," St. Romaine said.

Uber's General manager for regional expansion, Pooneet Kant, said while the company has been considering expanding to Columbia for a couple of months, it didn't have a specific start date.

"It's not like we've been planning for three months to launch on Oct. 9," Kant said. "It sort of depends on how many drivers are available in the system, so that's something we've had our eye on for a while. But we have started the conversation with the city, and we look forward to working closely with them."

St. Romaine has used Uber in three other cities and said he had good experiences as a customer. But as an administrator he had some concerns about driver background checks and vehicle insurance and safety inspections.

Kant said a county, multiple state and federal background checks are the first step for every driver. He said Uber has an overarching $1 million insurance policy and there are specific requirements for each driver's vehicle. Kant said the company's feedback system is the best way to ensure quality and safety.

"Honestly, the way we keep quality really high, beyond the background check process, is out two way feedback system," Kant said. "So after every ride, users are prompted to rate their drivers on a scale from one to five stars. We monitor those ratings in real time and take appropriate action if there's ever an issue that causes a low rating. That works both ways. Driver rate passengers and passengers rate drivers."Kelsey Arends, who lives in Columbia, started using Uber when she worked in Washington, D.C. this past summer.

"Uber is very big in D.C.," Arends said. "In fact, the taxis had a strike because Uber was taking over all of their services because it's great."

She said she likes that Uber is less expensive than a traditonal taxi, and she said she's never felt unsafe using the service.

"I've talked to a couple Uber drivers before, and they all get background checks and go through a process," Arends said. "They always get me from point A to point B, and they're always very respectful."

Now, St. Romaine said the city will have to figure out how to regulate Uber.

"The problem I think here is the fact that a lot of folks try to put Uber and companies like Uber into the category of being a taxi operator," St. Romaine said. "That's where I think we have a lot of problems, because a lot of our taxi ordinances were created decades ago, and we have regulations, laws ordinances, polices that aren't keeping up with the ingenuity technology has now created."

For the next week, rides are free using the code COMOFREE.

Here's a look at Twitter's reaction to the launch: