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By Jodi Schwan
I’ve had this column on my list for at least a month, so I guess I feel comfortable that my news instincts haven’t left me even if my ability to keep up with all the topics I want to chase sometimes seems to be.
I had a feeling we had to be getting close to bringing one of the major ride-sharing services to town, just because they have been so well-received in many other markets and because I couldn’t see anything that insurmountable about our state and local policies that should be keeping them out.
It had gotten to be a little embarrassing, actually.
A few months ago, I was helping a client plan to host several out-of-state visitors for a regional meeting.
She had to coordinate transportation for them from the airport because “the first thing they are going to do when they get here is pull up their Uber app,” she told me. “And they’re not going to believe it when they realize it doesn’t work here.”
Ironically, consultant and speaker Greg LaFollette, who worked with local elected officials to help Lyft come to town, told me about a similar experience.
He was flying back to Sioux Falls from a business trip and overheard other executives on his flight who were coming here because their business was considering expanding in the city.
“So I’m blowing Sioux Falls smoke as fast as I can (on the plane),” he said.
As they walked past the statue of Joe Foss in the lobby of the Sioux Falls Regional Airport, LaFollette was trying to explain who Foss was as the visitors were pulling out their phones and interrupted him.
“What the hell?” one said. “You don’t have Uber?”
“He looked at me like he was saying, ‘You don’t have electricity or water.’ He was incredulous,” LaFollette said.
“So that’s what got me off on this thing.”
“This thing” became a years-long process, championed by Sioux Falls City Council member Christine Erickson, that last week led to Lyft filing for state and city approval to operate here and beginning to approve drivers.
I’m still not sure I fully understand the holdup. It is not as simple as the ride-sharing services struggling with sales tax-related issues, I know that. But essentially it was a bit of a different process trying to operate here than the services had encountered elsewhere.
The relatively small population of our area combined with the fact that there were questions about how to do business here put South Dakota lower on the priority list, LaFollette told me.
So kudos to he, Erickson and others from city government and the state’s Department of Revenue who helped talked Lyft representatives through the process.
Their efforts are going to result in a service that brings economic opportunity to Sioux Falls and South Dakota even as it equalizes us with every other metropolitan area that offers the service.
Here are a few things that immediately come to mind.
For a while now, I’ve felt the biggest business jolt we could give downtown Sioux Falls is ride-sharing.
I really think there are people living outside the core of the city who do not come downtown for their after-hours entertainment because they don’t have an ideal way to get home safely later.
Downtown businesses need to begin thinking about how they market to the east side, west side and communities outside Sioux Falls. A population of potential consumers is about to become much more accessible, and that opportunity should be harnessed.
The same could be said for any business with customers who see transportation as a barrier or for employers whose staff members don’t have a reliable and affordable way to get to work.
“What I think will be interesting to see is the effect it will have on downtown livability and parking,” added Joe Batcheller, president of Downtown Sioux Falls Inc., who also agreed about the service drawing more visitors. “Lyft will make it much easier to for downtown residents to live car-free, which in turn could alleviate some pressure on downtown’s parking facilities.”
We also need to make people who aren’t familiar with Sioux Falls aware the service is available.
Much like “Google” is used to describe an internet search, “Uber” has become synonymous with ride-sharing. While PR and internal problems have caused its market share to drop, it still enjoyed about 75 percent of the traffic, according to research done in August.
I think Uber ultimately will come to town, but I don’t get a sense that it’s a priority.
So in the meantime, that means most people who are new to Sioux Falls likely will still encounter “Uber shock” upon realizing their app doesn’t work here.
We probably should be investing in marketing materials – even if Lyft doesn’t – at the airport, the Convention Center, hotels and other places people travel to make sure people know ride-sharing is available here.
I’m sure that will meet with backlash from some who don’t like the idea of promoting a private business, but this is bigger than that. There’s no reason we should have been the last in the country to get a progressive service like this to begin with. We don’t want to perpetuate the perception that we’re a backward place now that it’s coming.
It’s also a good reminder to all of us in industries being disrupted that we need to not bury our head in the sand and think change won’t come here or won’t affect us.
For those in the transportation business, this is the time to capitalize on a new opportunity or further differentiate your own offering.
For the rest of us, it’s a time to think about what this fundamental shift in how people get around might mean to our business and community. The transportation industry might be the most massively disrupted one of the coming decade, so we better get used to adapting.
Lyft will bring economic opportunity to Sioux Falls and South Dakota even as it equalizes us with every other metropolitan area that offers the service.