Robert Wilcox greets his fare with a handshake in downtown Fort Worth. He is wearing a pressed collared shirt and is enthusiastic about shuttling the customer on the 4.2-mile trip to Colonial Country Club.He drives a 2014 Toyota Venza that still smells like a new car. Other than a small placard with an “Uber” logo on the windshield, nothing about Wilcox’s vehicle indicates it’s for hire.Wilcox is a driver for Uber, a company that specializes in arranging taxilike rides for customers with the press of a button on their smartphones.As the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial gets into full swing this week, Uber is pushing to increase its business in Fort Worth. Golf fans are being offered $20 discounts for their first trip to Colonial on Uber — and drivers such as Wilcox are circling the streets of west Fort Worth, ready to pick them up. For residents who live within a few miles of Colonial, the $20 discount essentially makes their first Uber trip free.“It’s very relaxing because you’re not in a hurry, and there’s no handling of money,” said Wilcox, who quit his previous job as a long-distance truck driver to drive for Uber and be closer to his east Fort Worth home. “I get a lot of business travelers, people from California [or] New York. Mainly, it’s people in town for a conference, or in a hotel, [who] want to get to the airport. Or someone downtown who wants to go to Colonial.”To get the $20 discount, download the Uber phone app, create an account, which requires a credit card on file, and enter “FWBEAU” when asked for a promotional code.Cab controversyIn other cities, car services such as Uber and Lyft have been opposed by traditional cab companies, which typically pay fees for the right to pick up customers in their municipal jurisdictions. In Fort Worth, taxis are expected to pay a $1,000 application fee, plus up to $300 annually.Limousines, pedicabs and horse-drawn carriages also pay fees.The debate over whether services such as Uber have an unfair advantage will soon become a higher-profile discussion in Fort Worth, too, Yellow Cab President Jack Bewley said.“They’re playing by a whole new set of rules,” said Bewley, whose company operates more than 200 cabs in Fort Worth.Services such as Uber cherry-pick the most profitable rides from higher-income passengers who can afford to use credit cards, he said.“If you’re in an outlying area, their app will tell you ‘No driver available.’ We can’t do that. We’re a 24/7 operation, and we have to make the effort to get to you,” Bewley said. “Our fares are negotiated with the city.”Fort Worth officials have received at least one protest from the taxi industry about Uber, although it wasn’t from Yellow Cab, Councilman Jungus Jordan said.City officials mainly want to make sure that any business offering rides to the public is insured and that drivers are checked for criminal and bad-driving records, he said. At the same time, Fort Worth recognizes the growing popularity of services such as Uber, Jordan said, adding that he has used the service many times on business trips to Washington, D.C.“I think the world of smartphones and apps is here to stay, so I think we will be very open-minded on what is best and convenient for our citizens,” he said.Jordan said he and Councilman Joel Burns have also served on a regionwide committee that aims to standardize the quality of cab services throughout North Texas.The city doesn’t have an ordinance that specifically addresses Uber, spokesman Bill Begley said.Fort Worth officials have watched with interest as Dallas has scrambled to rewrite its vehicle-for-hire rules since Uber entered the North Texas market in fall 2012.Uber’s presence in Fort Worth has been smaller than in Dallas because of a lack of drivers in the area, but that appears to be changing quickly, several people connected to Uber said.Growing popularityUber, which began in 2009 in San Francisco, operates in dozens of cities in the U.S. and worldwide. The service has gained popularity for its ease of use.Once a customer creates an account, all the payments are handled digitally, so there’s no exchange of cash or credit cards with the driver. No tipping is expected.When customers want a ride, they click a button on the app and receive a text reply — usually within seconds — that a driver is on the way. The app also offers a fare quote, which provides a range of what they can expect to pay for the trip.On a recent trip from downtown Fort Worth to Colonial, the fare was $10.08 — free once the $20 promotion was applied. A return trip to downtown that afternoon was $10.52.Uber users can request a sport utility vehicle or a black car, both of which more closely resemble traditional taxi services. Or they can request an “UberX,” a private vehicle owned by people such as Wilcox who offer rides on a more informal basis. The growing number of UberX drivers includes some who work at it full time and others who use it to moonlight from their regular careers and supplement their incomes.“Try it once and it will knock your socks off,” said Beau Whatley, who works at a Fort Worth bank and is also an informal Uber “brand ambassador.” He is paid a commission for Uber users who put in the “FWBEAU” promotional code.Most first-time users are surprised how easy it is to get a ride, Whatley said. Uber’s app displays a map of the city, the location of the customer and any nearby Uber vehicles. On a typical weekday, three to five Uber vehicles can be seen within 1 or 2 miles of downtown Fort Worth.“It’s going to revolutionize the way we get around in Fort Worth,” he said.Michael, another Uber driver who asked that only his first name be used, has been picking up passengers for five weeks. He has a full-time job as a tax preparer and moonlights as an Uber driver for spare income.He said he picks up six to eight passengers a day and earns enough money to consider it a full-time second job. Uber drivers get 80 percent of the fare, and the company keeps 20 percent, he said.“A friend recommended this to me because of my personality. I like to talk with people,” Michael said while ferrying a passenger from Colonial to downtown.At Colonial, officials are cracking down on traffic around the golf course, and 10 barricades have been set up on surrounding streets to keep patrons from parking in residential areas. Michael had to wait near Colonial Parkway and Log Cabin Village Lane to pick up his customer. After the customer walked about a quarter-mile down a hill, Michael was waiting with a complimentary bottle of water.At the end of each trip, customers are asked to rate drivers on their apps on a scale of one to five stars. Michael is proud of his 4.9 stars. He says about the only time he loses points is when he carries extra-tall customers — because his four-door Ford Escort has somewhat limited legroom.But he says he has never received a low mark for customer service.“I wash my car every morning. I vacuum it every morning,” he said.
Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796 Twitter: @gdickson