Standing on a street corner in Charlotte’s Fourth Ward at 5:15 a.m., a Jeep Cherokee comes rolling by slowly. I had just deposited an empty wine bottle in a recycling container, so I figured I was the one who seemed suspicious.
The driver rolls down his window and asks, “Are you Lindsay?” He showed me his smart phone with Lindsay’s name and picture on it. That’s when I realized he was an Uber driver looking for his fare. Just then, a Chrysler van pulls up; it’s Charles, my Uber driver. I had been watching his progress toward me on my Uber app and checked his license plate before I took a small leap of faith and jumped in.
Charles took me to the Amtrak station, which was only 1.63 miles away. It’s unlikely a taxi would have even bothered. The ride was $5.65, the minimum. While Uber is supposed to be cashless (payment went through PayPal), I was so blown away by the idea of someone picking me up at 5:15 a.m. in a strange city, arriving in three minutes, that I gave Charles a cash tip.
Besides two Uber trips, my trip to Charlotte included an 11-hour ride each way from Wilmington, Delaware, on Amtrak’s Carolinian. The round-trip fare was about $200, and I figured I would be forced to get some work done during the long ride. The trip also included a stay at an Airbnb, the second time this year I have used the on-line short-term rental service. Scanning through all the Charlotte properties, I found a nice-looking loft room in this attractive neighborhood and messaged David, my potential host. I was curious whether it was easy to walk from his home to Charlotte Convention Center. He immediately answered back, and we were booked. Of course, I had been thoroughly pre-screened by Airbnb, scanning my driver’s license and offering up other forms of identification. David, for his part, had many glowing five-star reviews about his hospitality and the neighborhood. No one pegged him as a serial killer.
And instead of spending about $1,000 on four nights in a conventional downtown hotel, I spent $437 and a had a great experience plus got my walking in. David’s house was across a quiet street from a neighborhood tavern where I ate and drank craft beer three nights in a row. In January, I had booked a Holiday Inn for almost $1,000 near the University of Miami, then changed my mind and spent $269 to stay with Dominick in a nice residential neighborhood. In both cases, the rooms had private entrances and I barely saw the hosts, although they were very accommodating and checked in with me via text during my stay.
When you are traveling for business on your own nickel, you look for alternatives. But it’s more than that: At 60 (on May 18), I am still looking for unique experiences and a bit of an adventure. Sky-diving is no longer on my bucket list, but traveling still is. I had never even heard of Airbnb until late last year, and many of the small-town folks I talk to about rural economic development are unaware of it, or very wary.
It’s not all positive. Many residents of historic areas such as New Orleans’ Garden District are upset that homes have been turned into full-time rentals, attracting rowdy renters and piled-up garbage. Airbnb, Uber, Lyft and their counterparts tend to play hardball with cities that attempt to regulate them. After an intense and costly PR campaign to fight off regulation and standards, Uber pulled out of Austin, Texas when attempts to regulate the ride-sharing service failed, leaving 10,000 drivers in the lurch. “Though Austin has a reputation of being filled with tech-savvy millennials, it is now the largest U.S. city without ride-sharing,” according to a Forbes oped. Wrong. Philadelphia won’t allow it either.
It is a 21st century dilemma: How can a global and entrepreneurial internet-based company compete when each local government imposes a different set of regulations?
Charlotte, by the way, is a beautiful and clean city with distinctive neighborhoods such as the Fourth Ward, public art, surprising pocket parks, and plenty to do. If I had not been willing to take the leap of faith and technology and seek out a more authentic visit, I would not have seen much of it beyond the Convention Center and hotel.