Q&A: James Ondrey GM of Uber

By Abernathy Miller
From the January 2, 2014 edition

Uber, the car-hailing app available in 60 markets worldwide, is ready to take on Columbus. Boasting short wait times, slick rides and the convenience of an app that handles all the logistics (including payment), Uber aims to make getting around the city a little classier for everyone. After a soft launch in October, and a few hiccups with the Ohio driver-for-hire code, Uber Columbus General Manager James Ondrey is ready for the revolution to begin.

Uber is the platform that connects people with local drivers. It’s a cross between lifestyle and logistics. We don’t have a fleet of cars, or employ any drivers. When Uber launches in a city, we connect with the livery services that are already here and connect them with the people who need rides. When a driver is between scheduled pick-ups, they get on the Uber system and say they are available. It handles the marketing for the drivers and the customer doesn’t typically have to worry about long wait times or payment since it’s handled in the app. It’s a win-win for everybody, really.

Uber is really a viral thing. Once people use it they typically get hooked because it’s so easy and the wait times are much less than a conventional cab. You download the free app, put your credit card or paypal on file and order a car. You can see where your car is and the E.T.A. all in the app. You don’t have to worry about being able to pay in cash or tipping because it’s all included. At the end of the ride, you get an email with a breakdown of all the charges. The average wait time is, like, six minutes and that includes the suburbs. It makes things a lot easier.

The amount of emails we have gotten from Columbus [residents] put the city on our radar. We found that a lot of people who used Uber in other cities wanted us here as well. It makes sense because Columbus has everything that drives demand for a service like Uber. From college and professional sports, to the young professional population, to the amount of corporate headquarters based here, Uber makes sense. We’ve already seen huge usage just in the first two months.

Sometimes Uber can be seen as a disruptive thing, but Columbus officials really worked with us to make it happen. At first there was a problem with the driver-for-hire code, making it so each livery ride had to be a minimum of one hour. That doesn’t work for Uber. But we live in a world of competition, and the [residents] showed their support by the amount of usage and emails, so Columbus city council removed the hour minimum. The city leaders really said, “We get [the demand for the service], how can we make it so Uber can be here?”

Uber is sort of the stamp of “We made it.” People really get excited about having Uber available to them. Most of the cars are black town cars or SUVs with a driver in a shirt and tie who opens the door for you. Plus there is normally a bottle of water waiting in the back seat. It’s all about that elevated level of service. It really is a classy way to get around.

There are lots of different ways to use Uber. We do some fun things within each city. We did on-demand Christmas trees, we’ve done on-demand rose delivery on Valentine’s Day; I’ve even heard of people using Uber as a jump when their car battery is dead. On my first date with my fiancé, I sent an Uber car to pick her up and meet me at the movies. I think she was sort of freaked out at first, because she told her friend where she was going to be and who she was with in case she didn’t make it back, but she ended up really liking it.

Photo by Meghan Ralston