DEWEY BEACH, Del. (AP) — Derek Rowe has been driving for Uber for just six weeks, and in that short period, he has encountered a fistfight in his car, had an enthralling conversation with a disabled war vet and was asked to help spy on a man's girlfriend.
But business is booming at the beaches so far this season, making it all worth it.
“This is my 191st trip in about six weeks,” he said. “I made a little over $2,000.”
He wouldn't trade those experiences and money for a regular summer job while he's studying for the New York Bar exam and to become an NFL agent.
So after a long day of hitting the books, he gets in the car.
“Around dinnertime and at night, I'll do a few hours driving,” Rowe said. “It helps pay the bills and save up a few extra bucks for when I hopefully pass the exams and help me get started on my next career. It's been a good experience so far, for sure.”
Rowe is registered in Pennsylvania, which allows him to drive in New Jersey, Ohio and Delaware.
The Harrisburg, Pennsylvania native is a graduate of Bucknell and Duke Law. He is one of many people who use their own vehicles to earn money on a flexible schedule by working for the ride-sharing service.
As summer kicks into high gear in July, visitors pouring into the beaches are embracing ride-sharing services as a transportation option. The relatively inexpensive transport is preferable to walking in the hot sun, waiting for a bus, fighting heavy traffic and using expensive and hard-to-find parking.
“I think that Uber is actually the greatest invention of the 21st century,” said Long Island, New York native Nick Massimo. “I'm not kidding.”
Flexibility is a selling point, attracting drivers for these services at an astonishing rate. Unlike cab drivers, many of whom work full-time, Transportation Network Carrier drivers — mainly made up of Uber and Lyft for now — work when they want.
They're legally subcontractors, not employees. There are no supervisors, no bosses, and drivers can operate as much or as little as they wish.
But it doesn't quite mean the services are running wild without authority, despite some concern from legislators around the country.
The services use GPS to track each ride, said Uber spokesman Craig Ewer, and they also monitor drivers' speed and braking habits. Drivers who aren't meeting standards can have their driver accounts suspended.
Because TNCs are relatively new, they fall outside existing regulation applied to older forms of transportation. Taxi owners have complained across the country that they are under tougher restrictions than TNCs, which further hurts their ability to compete.
Part of Uber's success, in particular, is due to its ability to convince state governments that a uniform set of statewide regulations is more amenable to them than a patchwork of widely-varied local and municipal ordinances, Ewer said.
The company achieves this through dialogue and educational outreach to legislators.
It worked for them in Delaware and 39 other states, Ewer said. Former Gov. Jack Markell signed Senate Bill 262 into law in August 2016. The new law establishes clear regulations for TNCs and places DelDOT in charge of overseeing compliance. It also instructs DelDOT to meet with transportation stakeholders to find ways to “level the playing field” with TNCs, indicating that legislators are aware things aren't yet quite even.
Dewey Beach Mayor Dale Cooke and Rehoboth Beach Commissioner Paul Kuhns said that at this point they are not even sure how Uber and others are impacting local transportation services, trusting state officials to regulate as needed.
Carol Everhart, executive director of the Rehoboth-Dewey Chamber of Commerce, said she hasn't heard any complaints from transportation companies. She has not used TNCs but she has heard that many people, visitors and residents alike, consider them a convenient alternative to hunting for a parking space, always scarce in Rehoboth and Dewey at the height of the summer season.
She isn't taking sides in the issue, and welcomes any service that mitigates the limited parking issue.
There is still little clarity on the impact that services like Uber have had in Delaware.
According to a memo to the General Assembly from DelDOT Secretary Jennifer Cohan dated May 30, the Delaware Transit Corporation Office of Public Carrier Regulation held a meeting with public transportation carriers on Feb. 1. Out of that meeting, Cohan said that taxi companies are still paying substantially more than TNCs per vehicle for insurance, fees and background checks.
Cohan noted that TNCs use third-party background services while Delaware uses state and federal agencies that are more effective.
But Ewer said Uber isn't in competition with other transportation carriers. He said there is room for everyone in the “transportation pie,” and that different types of services shouldn't necessarily be regulated identically.
He thinks older regulations should be revisited to consider new technologies and the needs of users and drivers.
But one Dewey Beach taxi driver said he is feeling the grind.
It's running taxi businesses into the ground, said Aviy, a manager/driver for Dewey Beach Taxi, who refused to give his last name.
“You come to Dewey Beach and all you see is Ubers parked outside just waiting for the people,” he said.
While it's unclear what exactly the future holds for services like Uber and Lyft, beachgoers are certainly hopping in the back seat.
Jessica Zweigbaum and Massimo, who are in their 20s and from Long Island, New York, are new converts.
“We love it, yeah,” Zweigbaum said.
“Uber drivers are all cool, they're all nice, they all speak English,” Massimo said recently in Dewey Beach. “It's their car, so they take care of it, so it's very good. Very, very convenient. I never used it until we were on vacation here for our senior trip for our school, and this is the first time I ever used it.
“We rented out a house a couple miles away, and whenever we come (to the Rehoboth Beach Boardwalk) or to go eat anywhere, we take an Uber now.”
But people used to other forms of public transport might be a harder sell.
Teresa and Brian Dunbar, who are in their 40s and from Gainesville, Virginia, have used Uber occasionally after Brian found himself in a bind.
“I left my car key on the train one day,” Brian said.
He still uses taxis to get to and from airports, but says he now prefers Uber.
“More convenient, better experience,” he said.
At least for Rowe, it is all about giving his passengers that kind of experience. When he picks them up in his late model Acura, he offers amenities.
“I always have a phone charger, especially down here at the beach,” he said. “You get people who go out in groups of four, and somebody always needs one. It helps the ratings.”
He also carries bottled water and an auxiliary cable so that riders can play their own music through the car speakers if they want.
Watching the ratings is key with Uber, where passengers and drivers rate each other on a five-star system, plus extra points given to drivers for things like music, conversation, snacks or extra assistance.
“When they request you, they see your rating and sometimes when riders are 50-50 about canceling a ride or waiting it out, if the driver has a good rating they'll stick around,” Rowe said. “That stuff's pretty important. It's like anything in life — whoever you're serving or working for, you try to take care of their needs and make it as pleasant for them as possible.”
Not every ride has been pleasant for Rowe, including the one that ended in a fistfight and the one where he was asked to help spy on a man's possibly unfaithful girlfriend.
But overall, Rowe wouldn't trade it for another job right now.
“I started doing it and realized I enjoyed it more than I thought I would, just talking to different people,” Rowe said. “You kind of hear about all the negative stuff going on in the world, but it always seems like everyone I talk to, we tend to have a good conversation, and you meet people from all over the place at different points in their life; it's kind of nice. I've definitely enjoyed doing it.”