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4 Reasons Uber is Not Available in the Virgin Islands

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Charlotte Amalie 𑁋 Any Virgin Islander who has used Uber’s ride-hailing service on the U.S. mainland has likely floated the idea of a ride-sharing company like Uber or Lyft operating from anywhere in the territory. Residents and visitors currently rely on three fragmented modes of transportation in the territory — personal taxi vans, local safaris, and the Virgin Islands Transportation network.

VITRAN and the Virgin Islands Taxi Association are the only entities that are legally allowed to transport passengers on land; VITRAN also operates at least two catamaran-style vessels between St. John and St. Thomas. Uber is not available in the U.S. Virgin Islands because the territory’s transportation laws would first have to be amended.

Population & Size

Uber quietly launched its ride-hailing service in Puerto Rico in July of 2016. With the Virgin Islands less than 100 miles away, many who traverse both U.S. territories often wonder why the largest ride-hailing company in the world hasn’t expanded its operations to more popular seaports in the Caribbean.

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There’s no evidence that Uber ever weighed its options about setting up its on-demand transportation network in the Virgin Islands for future growth. As a large company seeking big gains and a more diverse cashflow, Puerto Rico’s population — which dwarfs that of the U.S. Virgin Islands with over 3 million citizens — offered a beneficial domestic expansion.

The size and general population and size of Puerto Rico offer Uber drivers a larger pool of potential passengers and opportunities for longer rides. Puerto Rico is approximately 3,500 square miles compared to the combined 136 square miles of St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John, Uber rides in Puerto Rico are generally longer and more valuable.

Road Conditions

Many roads in the Virgin Islands have uneven or flawed designs, missing street signs, and fading or absent street markings. Some U.S. cities are vulnerable to blizzards and other types of extreme weather, local flooding from torrential rains Federal, state, and local governments invested the equivalent of 4.2% of GDP in infrastructure projects in the late 1930s, according to a report published by Congressional Research Service, the policy research arm of the U.S. Congress. Driving throughout the territory can be hazardous to monetarists and tourists, it’s the shortest section in this article.

Source: State of the Territory News (Nadir Bridge 2018)

Street Addresses

In its early days, Uber was one of the first major taxi companies to partner with Google Maps to guide and direct its fleet of drivers. Google Maps owns the world’s largest mapping system, and Uber’s expansion over the years relied heavily on mapping technology.

Residential addresses on Google Maps are a mess in the Virgin Islands, even though new features like real time traffic and street view launched in the territory in 2018.

The Street Addressing Initiative (SAI) “is a project spearheaded by the Office of the Lieutenant Governor, and involving many agencies and departments of the Virgin Islands Government, including the Tax Assessor, GIS, Public Works, Planning and Natural Resources, WAPA, Historic Preservation, VITEMA (Emergency Management/E-911), Police, Health, viNGN, and others,” said the Office of the Lieutenant Governor.

Casual chat about the Street Addressing Initiative (SAI) in the U.S. Virgin Islands with Lieutenant Governor Tregenza A. Roach, Esq.

Private companies are assisting the government with the project, according to the Street Addressing Initiative official website. Lieutenant Governor Tregenza Roach, Esq. shared that his office has “partnered with the University of the Virgin Islands – Eastern Caribbean Center, Applied Geographics (AppGeo) and Spatial Focus, Inc. to develop the addressing system and to conduct a pilot study that will test methods for assigning address numbers throughout the Territory.”

The government’s street addressing initiative will ultimately create a street address for every home, business, and other buildings throughout the territory. A pilot project is underway to test the addressing system and street naming processes. Small areas on each of the 3 major islands are included in the pilot program, according to the Lt. Governor’s office.

Transportation Policy and the Taxi Association

Affordable taxi rates and service reliability in the U.S. Virgin Islands, compared to other taxi services in the U.S., are drastically different.

Taxi drivers are vocally wary of Uber’s contract-based service. For the most part, many cab drivers are up to speed with the company’s moves. The Taxi Association dominates taxi services on all three islands, making more money than the VITRAN bus service daily. Taxis in St. Thomas have expensive rates, especially if you’re traveling with a group.

The Department of Tourism offered a series of training workshops to taxi drivers on all islands to improve services and customer service gaps in the territory. Historically, the Taxi Association has pushed back on the prospect of water taxis, which could significantly reduce the novelty and value of land-based taxi rides to seaports connecting each island. The association also has a powerful voting block and lobbying power; any elected official risks losing important votes by opening the industry to fresh competition.

The Taxi Association in 2019 released a mobile app that would eventually allow customers to summon a taxi; on-demand. Without the completed Street Addressing Initiative, public adoption of the association’s technology, and improved road conditions, transportation in the Virgin Islands will likely stay the same for a while.

Uber’s network of drivers sometimes run into conflicts when met with local laws and rural areas with smaller populations. There have also been reports of the company weighing an investment in scooter rentals for rural areas and cities with heavy traffic congestion. This might actually be a pretty decent product launch for Uber to experiment with if it hoped to keep its scooter rental ambitions within the United States.

Lime announced a new $170 million funding round earlier this year led by Uber. Alphabet’s venture arm GV and Bain Capital also participated in the round, Lime said. The financing news came when the scooter-sharing industry saw disruption as COVID-19 made major changes to the global economy. Lime pulled its fleet of electric kick scooters from 99 percent of its markets around the world. As its revenue dried up, the company said it would lay off about 80 full-time employees, or about 13 percent of its global workforce.

Uber is more likely to introduce a scooter-based company in the Caribbean over ridesharing. The tourism and hospitality industry has seen economic losses in the wake of Covid-19. As a result, the U.S. Virgin Islands’ transportation industry has also seen shifts in demand and public trust.