Uber in Pensacola

What happens when an embattled, smartphone-based car service lands in sleepy Pensacola?

It's been an interesting week in my hometown. In the same week in which Pensacola (somehow) continued to have a debate over whether the offensive Confederate battle flag should be flown anywhere — and this has been an issue here since before I was born — we saw our first uberX cars hit the streets.

If that doesn't invoke a certain sense of schizophrenia, I don't know what will.

The expansion of Uber is inevitable, of course, even as it continues to face legal battles over regulations, drivers occasionally (not to be mistaken with excusably) investigated for assault, and PR blunders so stupid you wonder how the company made it this far. And I'm fascinated how a service I've quickly come to rely on in San Francisco and New York will work in a town such as ours. We mostly drive everywhere. That's mostly because we lack any real public transportation (a poorly funded bus system), and it's hot as hell for much of the year, making walking more difficult if you plan on being near anyone the rest of the day.

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The taxi experience here isn't much better. You're basically looking at aging minivans with impressive layers of filth and signs that warn you of the fee you'll pay should you upchuck on your ride back from the beach bars or downtown drinking spots. It's not a good experience.

Can a car service survive in a small down? And will it be worth it for us as riders?

So as soon as I spotted a car available in the Uber app on Thursday, I hopped in for a short ride. And the experience was predictable. A newer car. Pretty clean. A driver who was downright eager to pick up a fare. (And he was using a Nokia Lumia as his personal phone, which was fun to see.) A few minutes later I hopped out of the car and met my wife for lunch, and that was that. Pretty much the same experience as I've had in New York or SF. And that's the way it should be.

The question is whether it will take. It's not anywhere near as ubiquitous as it is in the major cities, which shouldn't be surprising. So it's not quite as on-demand as I might like. Nor will I use it here as much as I use it in the city. (And with all due respect to our local drivers, I have to wonder about the difference between them and the folks who drive for a living in New York, ya know?) And I'm not ignoring the fact that Uber as a company has some pretty serious issues to work on. Would I feel comfortable with my wife alone in a car here versus New York? I honestly don't know.

But the point is Uber is a 21st-century service that's come to our town that struggles to keep up with the times, if not downright shuns them. There will be squabbles over licensing and insurance. (Parity with regulations is a good thing, I think, as Uber and other car services hands-down would win here with the overall experience versus taxis.) And I'm extremely curious to see how much of a demand a car service like this has here. Fire up the app first thing in the morning and you might not see any cars available. On Saturday night, I counted 10, spread out around the city (but more concentrated downtown).

It's good to see new things happening here. And it's good to see old wounds being closed.

A couple other thoughts on the week ...

  • Be sure to vote in our year-end reader's choice awards! We'll do a couple more reminders this week.
  • We've had some interesting discussions the past week about updates and in-app purchases and how things aren't really ideal for developers or users still. We'll talk some more about that this week.
  • Santa Phil is coming to town this week. Look for the giveaways to start on Monday.
  • We're going to use Rafflecopter for them this year. They're a little more spammy than I might like, but they do take most of the work of contests off our shoulders an make it easier for anyone to enter.
  • I forgot how stupid things tend to get this time of year and going into the new year. Remember that anytime you see "ZOMG coming in 2015!" headlines and spec leaks.
  • Manufacturers are still nailing down what, exactly, their flagships are going to be next year. Don't sweat it if something looks weird. Chances are it's wrong anyway.
  • Case in point: I made the call to do this story. I know better.
  • I've been switching around watches whiles I finish our ASUS ZenWatch review. (Look for it later this week.) I think I've got my top three nailed down.

OK, that's it for this week. Back to work on Monday.