Uber's growth linked to drop in DUI arrests, upset in taxi market

| Monday, March 28, 2016, 11:10 p.m.

Smartphone-based car companies have transformed the way Pittsburgh residents make their way around the city — especially when they've been drinking.

New data from Uber shared with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review show the service's popularity peaks at closing time, when many intoxicated patrons are leaving the bars and getting rides home.

The data also show the top 10 destinations for Pittsburghers seeking nightlife. Topping the list is the North Side's Rivers Casino, followed by Mario's South Side Saloon and Mario's East Side Saloon. Click through the gallery above to see the full list.

Uber sees its service as a way for bar patrons to avoid driving drunk, and it gives them more options at an hour when public transportation can be scarce.

“When it's possible to get a safe, reliable ride at the push of a button, you start to see people changing their behavior in a meaningful way,” said Jennifer Krusius, general manager for Uber in Pittsburgh.

During 2015, the first full year of ride-share operation, authorities in Allegheny County made 3,284 DUI arrests, down nearly 18 percent from 4,004 in 2014 and 4,118 the year before that, according to state data.

Statewide, Pennsylvania law enforcement officers in all municipalities made 46,723 drunk driving arrests in 2015, down about 2 percent from 47,588 the previous year and 47,813 the year before that.

The entry of Uber and another ride-share company, Lyft, upset the taxi markets in cities across the country, including Pittsburgh. Here, there is a third option: Yellow-Z, started by the Pittsburgh Transportation Group in response to the new competition.

Uber's disruption hasn't been without controversy, as the company faces a potential fine of nearly $50 million from the Public Utility Commission; administrative law judges recommended the fine in November, after the company was penalized for operating without approval.

In California, the company received a $7.6 million fine in January for failing to meet data reporting requirements.

Fines notwithstanding, popularity persists.

Frank Vetere, owner of Carson City Saloon on the South Side, was surprised to learn his bar is the fourth-most popular destination among Uber users. He suspects the service is popular among customers who would otherwise opt to stay home because they don't have a designated driver.

“You can relax a little bit and have a few beers,” he said. “If we know we're going to leave the house, we take an Uber and don't have to worry at all.”

Vetere said while some customers used to try to call a cab home, they might get frustrated waiting and choose to drive. With Uber, cars come in “just a few minutes,” Vetere said.

Uber's data show ride requests spike at 2 a.m., then decline before going even higher at 4 a.m.

A study from researchers at Fox School of Business at Temple University released in January 2015 examined potential connections between Uber and the number of alcohol-related car crashes in California. It found that the entrance of Uber X — the service in which Uber drivers use their own vehicles — resulted in a 3.6 percent to 5.6 percent decrease in the rate of motor vehicle homicides per quarter in the state.

Pittsburgh City Council President Bruce Kraus, whose district includes the South Side, has pushed multiple efforts to make the nightlife-oriented neighborhood a safer atmosphere for both revelers and residents, including the addition of a smartphone car service pickup zone between 17th and 18th streets on East Carson Street meant to ease traffic congestion on weekend nights.

Four of Uber's top 10 bar destinations are in the South Side: Mario's, Carson City, Hofbrauhaus Pittsburgh and Local Bar and Kitchen.

Kraus said he has heard from residents that ride companies like Uber and Lyft have helped with “congestion of vehicles, the limited numbers of parking spaces and just overall reduction of carbon footprint.”

Anecdotally, he said, they have been “an approach to how we move people in a 21st Century, 24/7 economy.”

Melissa Daniels is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-8511 or mdaniels@tribweb.com.

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