The most commonly opened business around Central Seattle in 2015 wasn’t a restaurant, bar, or law office. It was a sole proprietor transportation business primarily opened by contract drivers for rideshare services like Uber and Lyft.
In 2015, of all new business licenses registered in the three zip codes that make up District 3, more than 9% were for the business category that includes “transportation network company” drivers, according to a City of Seattle database. UPDATE: We’ve received a more complete set of licenses for 2015 and have updated numbers in the post to reflect the update.
Prior to Uber coming to Seattle in 2011, the “All Other Transit and Ground Passenger Transportation” category didn’t even exist and didn’t take off until 2014 (the city data does show a bump in “Taxi Service” businesses between 2011-2014, which may account for some of the early app-based drivers). At least 75 individuals around District 3 have created rideshare businesses over the past two years, but they’re not a monolithic group. Time commitments and dependence on driving for income varied greatly among the drivers that spoke with CHS.
The booming popularity of rideshare driving as a business has also created some stiff competition over the past year.
“It used to be a lot easier to get rides out of Capitol Hill but there are so many cars you really chance it,” said Timothy Busch, who drives for Uber, Lyft, and the food delivery services UberEATS and Instacart.
2015’s Top 10 new business in District 3
UPDATE: With the updated dataset, there were a few changes to the rankings for the top 10 new businesses. The categories that includes new independent artists rose from ninth to fifth when looking at the more comprehensive dataset, and businesses classified as “Lessors of Residential Buildings and Dwellings” made it into the top 10.
- All Other Transit and Ground Passenger Transportation
- Administrative Management and General Management Consulting Services
- Offices of Mental Health Practitioners (except Physicians)
- Full-Service Restaurants
- Independent Artists, Writers, and Performers
- Offices of All Other Miscellaneous Health Practitioners
- Custom Computer Programming Services
- Beauty Salons
- Graphic Design Services
- Lessors of Residential Buildings and Dwellings
The explosion of TNC drivers marks a drastic shift in business activity on and around Capitol Hill. From 2008-2010, a business license for independent artists, writers, and performers was the second most commonly opened in District 3. From 2011-2013 artists topped the list as the most common newly licensed profession. The license count then dropped to fourth in 2014 and fell to ninth in 2015.
The rapid rise of the TNC industry has recently put a spotlight on the rights and working conditions of its drivers, particularly those who drive as their primary source of income. The Seattle City Council is now considering an ordinance to allow rideshare drivers to collectively bargain with companies like Uber, despite the fact that drivers operate as independent contractors.
Busch began driving for Uber and Lyft last year when he needed a full time job with the ability to takeoff on a moment’s notice. The 29-year-old suffers from combat related PTSD as a result of his 2011 deployment to Afghanistan as U.S. Army lieutenant. “I was starting to go through a pretty rough patch, and it kind of provided me flexibility,” he said.
Busch said he primarily drives between Capitol Hill and downtown, routes he thinks could be drastically affected when the U-Link light rail line connects Capitol Hill to downtown next year. “There will probably be a lot less early morning rides to downtown,” Busch said.
For others license holders, rideshare driving can be just a fun experiment. Holly Houser started picking up Uber passengers around Capitol Hill while working as the executive director of Puget Sound Bike Share, the non-profit behind Pronto. “I was both looking for a way to supplement my income, and as an Uber user and shared transportation advocate, was curious about what it was like on the other side,” she said.
In the end, Houser said she couldn’t dedicate enough time to driving to make a real profit and ended her foray into the business shortly after.
Drivers that spoke with CHS agreed Capitol Hill and Downtown were among the most popular locations for pick ups and drop offs, which may explain some of the rideshare driving boom around central Seattle. For Nick Starr, driving for five different TNC services was a convenient way to make money during his commute back to First Hill. “I would drive people around and eventually got close enough that I was almost home,” said Starr, who recently moved near Othello Park.
In 2015, business consultants were the second most commonly opened business type around District 3, followed by full service restaurants, and mental health practitioners. Restaurants jumped into the top 15 most common licenses in 2008 and have stayed there ever since while other business types have seen significant swings. “Parking Lots and Garages” were the top new license in 2009, the 32nd most common in 2011, and the 10th most common in 2014.