Can Ridesharing Thrive in TC, Given the City’s Seasonal Population Swings?

Until recently, vacationers from urban areas still had to smile and dial for a cab when they came to Traverse City.

Then last spring, ridesharing service TransportHer launched here to serve women, minors, and seniors.

Founded by Larry Russell and his daughter Carly Russell, TransportHer was designed to keep vulnerable ride-share users safe. The Russells were inspired to start the company after Carly was attacked and held against her will by a ridesharing driver.

For a brief time, TransportHer was the only ridesharing service in Traverse City, co-existing alongside the area’s long-running cab and limo companies.

That changed in August when Lyft made the decision to expand in the 32 states where its coverage had been sporadic. The move increased Lyft’s service to 40 states – more than Uber – bringing another ridesharing choice to Traverse City.

Six weeks later Uber announced that it was expanding its services to Traverse City, too. The expansion brought two Uber services to the area: UberX, the company’s lowest cost option, and UberXL, which offers rides for up to six people.

Charity Jackson, Uber’s spokesperson, said the launch in northern Michigan was motivated by customer demand.

“Prior to our launch in Traverse City, we heard from local residents who regularly asked us when we would be coming to town,” said Jackson. “We are excited to be providing safe, reliable rides and flexible earning opportunities for residents in Traverse City.”

Jackson declined to comment on whether Uber could soon expand to other northern Michigan communities already serviced by Lyft, such as Petoskey, Charlevoix or Kalkaska. She said that Uber does not “share information about driver numbers or expansion plans publicly.”

How much has the arrival of several new competitors altered the landscape of Traverse City’s transportation market?

Less than it might appear because of the rural setting and relative sprawl, said Doug Dornbos, the owner of Cherry Capital Cab and Grand Traverse Limousine.

“The reason the rideshare companies didn’t come to rural America at first is that it’s a different animal from the big city. It’s harder to make it work,” he said. “[Drivers] have to figure out how to stay busy. If you don’t have one ride after another … at some point you just start feeling like you’re on call. So, I think a lot of the Uber and Lyft drivers will be part-timers and they’ll come in when they can make money.”

When visitors come to northern Michigan and notice ridesharing wait times, often the reaction is one of surprise.

“People come here from out of town and pull up Uber or Lyft and see that the wait is 30 minutes, and they’re blown away,” Dornbos continued. “But that comes with rural America, it doesn’t come with TC specifically.”

Traverse City does pose unique challenges given its status as a summertime tourist destination. In the summer, when the Cherry Festival draws in 500,000 people and the area’s population swells to several times its usual size, ridesharing companies can operate more like they do in urban settings.

In the winter, when festivals are few and far between and tourists are elsewhere, there is less demand for transportation.

Dornbos believes that these massive swings in demand will mean big business for Uber and Lyft in July and August, but make more traditional cab and shuttle services popular in the offseason.

“Are there ever times where we are too busy? Sure, but we’re always staffed. We might get surprised and not be staffed adequately, but every hour of the year, we’ve got multiple taxicabs on shift,” he said. “We’re committed to providing 24/7 around-the-clock service.”

See “Traverse City Transportation: A Comparison Chart” (pg. 9) in the February issue of the TCBN, now on newsstands.