CROWN POINT | Business has been slow at first, but Crown Point's first Uber driver thinks that's because Northwest Indiana residents aren't aware of ride-sharing yet, or that it's available outside of Chicago.
Jim Tucker, a middle school English teacher at St. Mary's Catholic Community School in Crown Point, signed up as an UberX driver because he hoped for a little extra income and saw a need for such a service in downtown Crown Point, which has a lively bar scene on the weekends.
He hopes to recruit more Uber drivers in Northwest Indiana and evangelize more people to the ride-sharing or ride-hail service, which he said would greatly benefit those who might not be in any condition to drive home on a Friday or Saturday night.
Ride-sharing, using an app on your smartphone to hail drivers through companies such as Lyft and Sidecar, has become increasingly popular in Chicago and other large cities. Uber, which is valued at $40 billion and has raised at least $1 billion from investors for its third month in a row, is the biggest and best-known company in the growing market segment.
Uber is currently offered in 54 countries around the world, including in about 150 cities in North America. The company's website does not actively list any Northwest Indiana communities, but Tucker monitors the mobile app and has seen a few drivers operating in Hammond, Whiting and near the steel mills in Gary.
Ride-sharing drivers compete with only a few local taxi companies, including Class A Cab in St. John, Yellow Cab and Limousine of Dyer, and Fast Cab Company in Hammond.
Tucker, who lives close to the courthouse square in Crown Point, has been going around to local bars to pass out discount cards with referral cards that give riders $20 off their first ride.
"It's a way to make a little bit of extra money that's flexible," he said. "The bars are always packed on the weekends and I'm available to get people home safe and sound. The biggest issue is that people don't know it's available."
While being an Uber driver is not a full-time job, Tucker can make an extra $50 or $60 a week from it, which would help him towards his rent. He's looking to drive people home from nights out drinking, out to the airport or even to a South Shore Line station if anyone is looking for a night out in Chicago without having to drive. He offers fares — who have to download the Uber app on their phone to use the service — a Gmail address to schedule return trips if necessary.
A quick ride a few blocks in Crown Point might run $5 or $6, Tucker said. The minimum fee is $4, and then it's 60 cents a mile.
"It's an affordable option," he said. "You look on the app, get pinged, get an anonymous number to call or text, get in the car, where you can choose the music or whether to sit in the front or back seat. It's a clean car with a good guy, and it's cheap."
As a parochial teacher, Tucker doesn't make as much as he could teaching in a public school and his schedule isn't ideal for a retail or other secondary job with rigid hours. If he has a strong Friday night, he might not have to work the next night. That's partially why he's hoping more drivers sign up, so enough people are offering Uber rides at any given time that it reaches critical mass.
He's worried people might download the app, or use it in Chicago, but give up after checking a few times in Northwest Indiana and finding no available drivers. He hopes to sell people on the extra income and flexibility it offers as a secondary job, to make the service more established in the region.
"I'm not looking to be the kingpin of Uber in Northwest Indiana or anything," he said. "I'm not going to get rich off it. I'm just trying to make a few extra bucks."
Unlike many other part-time gigs, Tucker also sees it as a noble calling, since he offers an alternative to drunken driving that could prevent fatal accidents.
"I contribute to my town as an educator, but it's another way I can continue as a citizen," he said. "Part of our mission is to be charitable, and this could save someone's life."