WATERLOO — Let’s say you had one too many drinks at a downtown Cedar Falls establishment. You and your friends don’t want to drive. Instead of calling a taxi, you pull up an app on your smartphone, tap a few times and get a ride home.
You might think since Uber’s not officially allowed in the Cedar Valley yet that you can’t do this.
Judd Mercurio wants you to know you’re wrong on that point.
The Waterloo man has been driving family and friends around in Cedar Falls — informally, since he’s not yet licensed — for a company called Arcade City for a month.
Arcade City is a decentralized ridesharing service that operates a lot like Uber, except for all the ways it doesn’t.
Mercurio said he heard about Arcade City on a radio show and said it appealed to his sense of deregulated, small government.
“I see how the government’s been getting their hands in regulations of apps,” he said. “Arcade City ... just seemed like it was less regulated, but not in an unsafe way. You’re basically responsible for marketing yourself, building up your customer base.”
So Mercurio, as the one-man marketing machine for Arcade City Cedar Valley, drives his family and friends around Waterloo and Cedar Falls in the evenings and on weekends.
“I like Arcade City because I’m an entrepreneur at heart. I like to go out and talk to people, building business,” he said.
Mercurio is the only Arcade City driver in Iowa so far as Arcade City founder Christopher David knows.
David, a former Uber driver, started his company in New Hampshire after he grew frustrated with Uber’s policies. He believed the problem was in the way Uber set rates, both for riders — adding surcharges during busy times — and for drivers, when it announced rate cuts.
Drivers especially were “critical of distant corporate headquarters, and more feedback was being ignored,” David said. “I saw there was an opportunity to start up something.”
Arcade City is similar to Uber in that riders and drivers use a central app to find each other for rides, but that’s where the similarities end. Whereas Uber sets rates and only allows credit card payments, David said Arcade City’s drivers can take any payment they wish, including cash, Paypal or even digital currency like bitcoin.
Arcade City takes 10 percent of credit card sales through the app, but drivers can override this by using their own card readers, said David.
Drivers also set their own fares, which Mercurio likes. He said he uses a “pay what you think is fair” method and gives first timers a free ride just to get the word out.
“If I give them a 2-mile ride and they wanna give me $5, that’s awesome,” he said.
Arcade City’s app is offline for a few weeks for an update, according to David, and won’t be able to be downloaded until it’s back online. Mercurio said by the time the app gets back up and running, he hopes to be licensed to drive more than just his friends and family.
Mercurio is not anti-Uber. Quite the contrary: He started and administers both Uber Waterloo-Cedar Falls and Arcade City — Cedar Valley pages on Facebook and hopes, if Uber is approved in this area, that he’ll be able to drive for both.
It appeals to his entrepreneurial sense to have more competition, not less.
“Whatever app they’re using, I’m there to pick them up,” he said. “And if they get in my car, I’m gonna tell them about Arcade City.”