Saranac Lake to test Uber subsidy program

Sherry McDonough has been driving Uber in the Tri-Lakes for a week, picking it up as her shoulder heals from an injury. She hasn’t had many riders so far, but hopes a village program to pay for 50% of some riders’ fare might increase her customer base. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Marbone)

SARANAC LAKE — The village of Saranac Lake is preparing to launch a six-month pilot program with the ridesharing app Uber to pay for half the fare of rides for villagers who meet income, disability or age qualifications.

Under this program, the village would provide monthly vouchers to pay for 50% of ride costs for rides within a 20-mile radius of village boundaries, starting on Oct. 2.

“In Saranac Lake we don’t have great public transportation because of frequency and location of pick-ups and drop-offs,” village Mayor Jimmy Williams said. “We have a lot of folks struggling financially and then we have a lot of folks who are older and don’t drive themselves, but still need to get around for doctors appointments, school, work, socialization.”

The pilot is meant to inform the village on whether or not it is feasible to subsidize rideshare services like Uber, determine the limit of rides per month the village will be able to subsidize per applicant, find the most common areas and routes of need, determine designated pick-up locations and find peak hours of demand.

Williams said this program will mostly be for elderly people, those who are disabled or people with an annual household income of less than $22,000.

Village Clerk Amanda Hopf said people who qualify due to being elderly or disabled do not also need to meet the income qualification. To qualify as elderly, someone must be age 60 or over.

Hopf’s been working on getting the program started since they passed this year’s budget this spring, he said.

“All the credit should really go to Amanda,” Williams said.

The village approved $20,000 in its 2023-2024 budget for the rideshare program. Hopf said there may be state federal and county grants the village can get to help fund an eventual permanent program.

Few drivers

There a problem, though. There aren’t too many Uber rides to be found currently in Saranac Lake.

Hopf estimates there are three or so Uber drivers around town that she knows of.

Williams hopes this pilot program will jump-start the rideshare industry around town, which has stalled, at least at times. By increasing demand, he believes an increase in supply will follow.

“No guarantees, but I think it’s going to increase the number of folks who drive Uber in Saranac Lake, which would be advantageous to the rest of us,” he said.

An Enterprise reporter tried to hail an Uber at 1:30 p.m. on Monday. After 10 minutes of waiting, the app eventually sent a message saying “UberX is unavailable right now.” There were no drivers in town at that time. Again at 3:30 p.m., no drivers.

On Wednesday, at around 3:22 p.m., an Enterprise reporter was able to get a ride in an Uber.

Sherry McDonough has been driving Uber for around a week and has only picked up four clients so far.

“I’m not as busy as I’d like to be,” she said.

McDonough guessed that’s due to people not knowing she’s been available.

She recently inured her shoulder. A hairdresser by trade, she searched around for something she could still do while her arm heals up, and after quizzing a Tupper Lake-based Uber driver, decided to become one, too.

She thinks the village’s subsidy program could help get her more customers. McDonough does hair once a week at Will Rogers and said a resident of the elder living community told her residents there could use more Ubers.

Saranac Lake has been without an official taxi service for years.

In April, Hopf issued two taxi licenses to Northern Lights Taxi and Delivery for their two drivers and vehicles.

“I believe they have been quite successful,” Hopf wrote in an email. “After the pilot program is over and we are able to get a better idea of how the subsidy will work, I am hopeful we will be able to include them, and perhaps other already established transportation services, in the subsidized rides.”

Cost constraints

But the subsidy might not shave enough off for some riders to use it regularly. A ride from the Enterprise office at 54 Broadway to Coakley Home and Hardware on Lake Flower Avenue and back, approximately 1.8 miles each way, cost $17, plus a tip.

In April, Saranac Lake resident Susan Steen said in a guest commentary to the Enterprise that the $4 round trip charge for seniors to ride the county bus each day to the Saranac Lake Adult Center adds up to more than most can afford on fixed incomes.

The minimum wage in New York is currently $14.20, so for a working person to meet the income qualifications they would need to be working part-time and under 30 hours a week.

Asked about the price issue, Williams said that is part of the reason the village has started off with a pilot program — to learn why people need it. Is it a once-in-a-while thing for a doctor’s appointment? Or are people looking for rides twice a day for work?

“I have plans to conduct a survey three months into the six month pilot program to see if that (income) threshold is too low/high, where the most popular pickup locations are, the amount of vouchers being used, etc.,” Hopf wrote in an email.

Canadian inspiration

Williams said this idea was inspired by the town of Innisfil in Ontario, Canada, which has made Uber its official mode of public transit. He has found this example to be “successful.”

The unique partnership is in its sixth year of existence, and while it has its fair share of criticism and controversy, the agreement has been renewed each year by town officials and was extended for another year this spring.

The partnership started in 2017. It saw 85,943 trips in 2018 and close to 95,000 in 2022. The subsidy paid by Innisfil in 2022 amounted to $826,000.

Some critics have said this system serves to undermine existing public transit options, like buses and trains, which are essentially competition for Uber. Uber’s stated goal is to “replace personal vehicle ownership and usage and public transportation one use case at a time,” and it stands to make money from that.

The Franklin and Essex County bus runs seven days a week with stops all around town, but has limits on when it is in certain areas, and only makes stops in the most popular centers. The Franklin County demand service bus runs from Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 2 p.m. and requires 24-hour advance scheduling.

There are also concerns about putting more cars of the road. But Innisfil has many more drivers — 2,203 in 2018 — than Saranac Lake. Innisfil is a lakeside town with a population of 40,000, an hour and a half drive from Toronto.

There are also labor concerns surrounding services like Uber. These tech startup companies notoriously underpay their drivers, according to a report by Centre for Future Work, which has led to strikes around the world. This year marked the first in 14 years of existence that Uber turned a profit. It was largely existing off an initial influx of venture capital funding and lost $32 billion in the meantime.

Uber finally becoming profitable points to its high usage and dedicated customer base. It has not taken off in the Adirondacks yet. But village officials hope this program might change that.

The applications for this program will be available on Oct. 2 at the village website at saranaclakeny.gov by clicking on “Projects” and then the “Rideshare” project page, or by contacting Hopf at clerk@saranaclakeny.gov or 518-891-4150 ext. 202.


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