Wednesday, February 1, 2023

‘I’m beeping tonight’: Students turn to familiar faces in private rideshare group

WILMINGTON — An informal ride-sharing model that gained notoriety on the other side of the state has made its way to Wilmington.

Averie Douglass learned about “beeping” while she was a student at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. She was visiting a friend who attended Appalachian State University in 2019 and they hailed a ride home by calling a number posted in a local Facebook group. The ladies paid the driver a couple dollars each to make it to their destination safely and at a lower cost than a formal rideshare network. 

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Boone Student Beeper started in 2011, at a time when ride-sharing company Uber did not provide service in the area (operations launched in 2017 in the community). The group allows people to offer rides in exchange for tips and has more than 30,000 members. 

It also has spawned similar offshoots, including a page restricted to students only with 14,000 members, one for post-grads and so on.

“When I actually rode in a beeper, I said: ‘I can’t even believe this is a thing — why don’t we have this everywhere?’” Douglass said.

She decided to launch a similar service called “UNCW beepers” that year, though the numbers in the Wilmington group didn’t really begin to rise until 2021, increasing by 1,000 people in a week. It continues gaining popularity and in the past week alone saw a 100-person uptick, bringing it to 4,500 members. 

Beeper rides are usually offered for $4 or $5 per person and drivers sometimes charge a bit more for single riders. Costs of other rideshare services vary by day of the week and time, but an Uber trip from downtown to UNCW’s campus costs about $11 as of Thursday afternoon.

That can double, even triple, during surge hours. According to Uber, the company applies a multiplier to rates in real time depending on demand.

The legality of beeping falls into a gray area. Drivers are technically operating independently and only working for tips, rather than formally requiring payment for a service. Appalachian’s Student Government Association addressed the issue specifically in 2014, making students aware  an insurance agency could deny a beeper driver coverage in an accident if the company found out the motorist was being paid to transport people.

Services like Uber and Lyft operated in a gray area in North Carolina until 2015, when a new state law formally regulated them as “transportation network companies.” The law requires permits issued by the N.C. Department of Motor Vehicles and an anti-discrimination policy.

Beeper contacts are only accessible via a private Facebook group. Student drivers often post, “I’m beeping tonight,” followed by their phone numbers, how long they are offering rides and how much they charge. Students then make the call personally to be shuttled to their destinations.

The UNCW beeper page is not affiliated with the university. A UNCW spokesperson told Port City Daily it does not have any information about its safety, quality or reliability, but it also did not condemn the service.

“While the university’s Student Health Center and UNCW Police Department are supportive of a variety of alternatives to prevent individuals from driving while impaired, students are strongly encouraged to socialize safely by using the buddy system, designating non-impaired drivers within their friend groups and utilizing transportation services they have fully vetted,” the statement reads.

Maddy Tamms graduated from UNCW in May and used the app several times to get to and from parties, she said. The draw was being able to choose a driver from a pool of students; often she would select females, which added, for her, another layer of security.

“Usually rideshare apps make me really anxious, especially if I’m going somewhere alone,” Tamms said. “I guess I just felt safer with someone closer to my age.”

Anyone that orders through a national rideshare app will have a vehicle automatically pinged, rather than a driver of the passenger’s choosing. 

Despite all its perceived benefits, beeping has had a tumultuous history within the Appalachian community. In September 2016, a man was charged with sexual battery after giving an Appalachian State student a ride home via the beeper page.

In May the same year, a beeper driver in Boone was robbed; subsequently, Boone Police Department issued a statement that said it does not condone the system or amateur taxi drivers. It advised if people do use the service, it should be limited to students who stick to the buddy system.

Other national rideshare companies have GPS tracking, background checks for drivers, and supplemental insurance that kicks in when someone starts picking up people — all of which assists in keeping tabs on any crimes that may occur during the rides. Even with the increased formality, it’s not 100% foolproof. 

Uber’s latest self-reported safety numbers from 2019-2020 show 3,824 reports of sexual assault over 650 million rides in the U.S.

Though not formalized companies, beeper groups have rules for drivers and passengers. In the main analog in Boone, the group encourages people to be responsible and not harass others; it is also open to anyone in the community as drivers or passengers.

The Wilmington page is a bit stricter. It’s not open community-wide and tries to limit members to UNCW and Cape Fear Community College students in the 18-to-26 age range.

So far, administrators have not heard of any untoward behavior from people using the group, other than general rudeness and some riders refusing to pay. Repeat offenders on those fronts are removed from the ranks by being banned from the group.

The page is monitored by Douglass, who graduated from UNCW in 2022 with a degree in psychology and is now a masters social work student at the University of South Carolina. When she moved away, Douglass enlisted the help of Coby Thigpen, a current CFCC and UNCW dual-enrollment nursing student.

Douglass said people know the risk of taking rides from strangers going in. Personally, she said she only got in a vehicle with people she knew in the group. 

According to Thigpen, the administrators actively vet people who request to join. They inspect profiles for information, like where the prospective member goes to school and lives, and makes sure they have a legitimate profile picture and active postings.

People have been rejected who do not fit the criteria, including a number of parents who want to see what is happening in the group. Thigpen said he understands why parents ask to connect, but the admins do not want to make an exception for one older person and then have to admit others.

Thigpen joined UNCW beepers about two years ago. A typical Friday or Saturday night, he said, will feature 15 to 20 drivers and between 100 to 1,000 people looking for transportation at any given time. However, people are picked up throughout other hours of the week.

“I wouldn’t say it’s as busy as night time or the weekend, but there is definitely a little bit of activity throughout the day,” Thigpen said.

The initiative has remained popular in Boone despite the occasional report of violence — so much so a pair of Appalachian students launched an app to facilitate the service in 2021. It includes verification that its riders are students, has options to set ride parameters, like making passengers wear masks, but the app does not provide more advanced features for GPS tracking or handling payment. 

Douglass said she would be open to expanding UNCW beeper to an app in the future as well.

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