Kelly Waldenberger drives for Lyft in Winona. The ride-sharing app is one of a few options for getting rides in Winona.
by CHRIS ROGERS
The transportation options in smaller towns in Greater Minnesota have always been limited, but Winonans who need a ride have options 0 days. Private taxis, Lyft drivers, and the city of Winona’s dial-a-ride bus service are all competing to pick them up.
“I’ve always thought to myself, ‘Why doesn’t Winona have this?’” Justin Ellinghuysen said. He was talking about ride-sharing apps, and when one — Lyft — finally did come to Winona this January, Ellinghuysen was excited. Ellinghuysen takes Lyft rides in Winona, but more often than not, he is driving. He has given over 2,000 rides to everyone from international students going to the store, to Fastenal professionals in town for trainings, to Winonans looking to have one more round across the river in Wisconsin after Minnesota bars close.
Bar time is the biggest rush, according to Lyft drivers and Economy Cab Manager Terry Marcum. “We probably have 10 vans on if we have the people for them,” Marcum stated. “But it’s only a short time at night, so to justify having that may drivers on — it’s kind of a fickle thing.”
“On a Friday, Saturday night, I’ll give 30-40 rides and the majority of those are people who have been drinking,” Ellinghuysen reported. “It feels like a bit of a community service,” he said. “It makes me feel like I’m helping keep people from driving who shouldn’t be driving.” He added, “So many times in this town, because the transportation was unreliable at nine to 10 o’clock, people were driving, and there are no more excuses for that anymore.”
“If I do daytime, I’ll have grocery shoppers, people doing job interviews, and families who don’t have transportation,” Lyft driver Kelly Waldenberger said. She has taken people as far as the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport, and Ellinghuysen said he drives people to La Crosse about once a week.
“[Lyft] is another option for people,” Ellinghuysen stated. “It’s a pretty affordable way to get around town. It’s dependable. It’s reliable.”
“Cheaper, safer, and cleaner than a taxi,” Dulcy Capehart said of Lyft in a comment on the Winona Post’s Facebook page. Other commenters agreed, while Brad Anderson felt that taxis were faster.
Marcum acknowledged that his company has had some trouble with long wait times because of a shortage of drivers. “We strive to make the wait time less than half an hour. We try to make the wait time less than 20 minutes, but sometimes the customer have to wait a little longer,” he said. “Basically, our call volume is large enough that we need more drivers. We’re short employees,” Marcum explained. Like many businesses, Marcum said that Economy Cab has had trouble getting enough qualified candidates to apply for job openings. “We are trying our hardest to get new employees, and we’re having difficulty,” he acknowledged.
The city of Winona also launched a new ride service last December. The new dial-a-ride service allows citizens to call for a city transit bus to pick them up and give them a ride anywhere in Winona, Goodview, or up to two miles outside of town. The service has limited hours compared to other ride services — from 6 a.m. to 6:15 p.m. on Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday. Riders are supposed to call at least a day in advance, and the service is not available within four blocks of an existing city bus route. Some Winonans did not know the service existed.
The dial-a-ride service is inexpensive; just $1.30 per ride. The service does not pay for itself; it is currently funded largely by a state grant. That grant will end in July 2019, and, as long as the program meets the state’s ridership goals, the Minnesota Department of Transportation (Mn/DOT) will continue to fund 80 percent of the program’s approximately $150,000 annual cost. The city will need to fund the remaining 20 percent — around $30,000. Winona City Clerk Monica Hennessy Mohan and representatives from the bus provider were not immediately available for comment.
Despite this new competition, Marcum said that Economy Cab is doing well. “Business is very strong. We’re not planning on going anywhere except getting bigger,” he said, adding that Economy Cab recently added a van in Fillmore County. Marcum noted that a significant part of Economy’s business is Economy Speciality Services, which provides government-funded and health-insurance-company-funded transportation to doctor’s appointments for people with physical handicaps, developmental disabilities, and seniors. “That’s our bread and butter, basically,” Marcum stated.
Lyft cars usually cannot accommodate handicapped passengers, and Waldenberger reported that only technologically savvy seniors use the app. “It tends to skew younger, for sure, because you’re using a smartphone,” Ellinghuysen said, stating that he gives rides to many middle-aged Winonans but fewer seniors. Ellinghuysen said that one customer suggested that nursing homes or the senior center offer classes on how to use Lyft. That made a lot of sense to Ellinghuysen. “They’re looking for reliable transportation, but they’re intimidated by the smartphone,” he said.
During the daytime, there are not always Lyft drivers working. In big cities, Lyft allows riders to reserve rides ahead of time, Ellinhuysen said, but that is not an option in Winona.
In big cities, Lyft and other ride-sharing apps also use surge pricing. When demand for rides peaks, so does the price per ride, and drivers are incentivized to work peak hours with higher rates. However, there is no surge pricing in Winona, Ellinghuysen said.
“As far as Lyft goes, they’re welcome to give it a shot here,” Marcum said, though he had his own doubts about whether driving for the app would earn them enough money to justify repairs on their vehicles or filing taxes as an independent contractor.
“I really enjoy it,” Ellinghuysen stated. “My wife says, ‘You’re obsessed,’ but it’s just a fun pastime. And a good week can be $600-700. There are expenses. We pay for our own gas and depreciation on our cars, but I can usually make my car payment and mortgage payment from Lyft driving.”