Tony Ciotti, Danielle Danzuso and Mike Conley join forces as Pear Transportation Co. near the 18th and Carson streets intersection on the South Side.
By Jennifer Goga
Tony Ciotti, Mike Conley and Danielle Danzuso enjoy a good time with a few social drinks. But, at 28 years of age, the Green Tree residents also know the danger of drinking and driving.
After several of their friends received DUI citations, the three thought it was time Pittsburgh had a designated driving service, similar to those offered in other U.S. cities.
A few weeks later, they founded Pear Transportation Co., which they basically operate with their cell phones. Billed as "Pittsburgh's only designated driving service," the company offers an alternative to taxicabs or limousines. Instead, it gives customers a way to be driven home in their own vehicle, often for less than the cost of a round-trip cab fare.
So far, the idea appears to be catching on. Since its debut in early October, the owners report a steady increase in reservations. Seven additional drivers were recently hired to meet the growing demand.
Here's how it works: When planning a night out involving alcohol, customers reserve a Pear driver by phone or online. Pear drivers pick up customers at virtually any location for a $15 fixed fee, plus $1.50 per mile. The drivers take the car keys and the Pear driver drives to the customer's home in the customer's vehicle. Then, a Pear "runner" picks the driver up at the customer's home in time for the next trip.
Reservations are not required but are recommended. Each car owner must sign a waiver before a Pear driver drives the vehicle.
Text messaging helps streamline communication about pickup times and locations.
"The trips are a blast. A lot of our customers fall asleep, but some like to chat it up," Mr. Ciotti said. "It's kind of like 'Taxicab Confessions,' " he said, referring to the HBO television series, airing on that network since 1995. The documentary-style segments are filmed in New York City and Las Vegas with real-life cab riders sharing personal revelations.
Jeremy Horton, 32, works in financial services at a local bank and believes the Pear Transportation Co. provides a valuable service to social drinkers who are unwilling to risk the dangers of driving impaired.
Mr. Horton has used the service twice and often recommends it to friends. Recently, he and his wife, Danielle, paid $40 to have Pear transport them from the South Side to their home in Robinson.
"It was absolutely worth it," Mr. Horton said. He believes weighing the monetary cost against the possibility of either an accident or DUI citation makes the service priceless.
Mr. Horton admitted he was initially nervous about letting someone else drive his car, but after the first trip, he was convinced the company was responsible and serious about safety.
"They were really professional," he said.
Before being hired, all Pear drivers must pass a criminal background check and have clean driving records, with no DUI citations.
After the first two months of operation, the Pear founders are a little surprised by their customer profile.
"We thought it would be mostly 20-something bar goers, but we have a lot of people in their 40s and 50s who value the service just as much, if not more," Mr. Ciotti said.
"I guess they have even more to lose if they get a DUI [citation]," Ms. Danzuso said.
The company strives to meet individual needs as well. It has honored requests from female customers who are more comfortable with a female driver.
According to Mr. Ciotti, startup costs were minimal for the fledgling business. With Pear drivers using the customer's car for each trip, the company didn't need to buy vehicles.
Instead, they simply invested in global positioning systems, marketing consultation and breath analyzers, which are used strictly for in-transit entertainment.
"If you guess your alcohol level, you get a free 'The Pear Cares' T-shirt," Mr. Ciotti said.
The service includes pickup at bars and private residences throughout the Pittsburgh area.
"We'll go anywhere within reason," Mr. Ciotti said. There is a nominal surcharge for destinations outside of Allegheny County.
Local media coverage and word-of-mouth contributed to a recent surge in Pear reservations. On Thanksgiving eve, a traditionally popular night for bar-hopping, Pear made 15 trips.
"It was our biggest night yet," Ms. Danzuso, said. "It was awesome."
Despite the increase in reservations, the Pear was able to coordinate trips smoothly, ensuring prompt pickups for everyone.
"They all seemed to love the service. We had a good team put together so we were pretty well-prepared," Ms. Danzuso said.
The company is gaining support from others in the community as well.
Lt. Mike McMurtrie, of the Mt. Lebanon Police Department, coordinates the Mt. Lebanon Area DUI Task Force. He is pleased that Pear Transportation is offering another option to impaired drivers.
"How could I be against it?" he said. "There is sometimes a tremendous wait for a cab, leading people to throw caution to the wind."
Lt. McMurtrie noted his task force has seen an increase in designated drivers at recent sobriety checkpoints. "We're not offended by drunk passengers as long as they're over the legal drinking age," he said. "[Pear's] efforts could definitely save a life."
Local businesses like the idea, too. "Some of our biggest advocates are bar owners who have a concern for customers heading out of their establishment after a night of drinking," Mr. Ciotti said.
Mr. Ciotti believes last week's record number of reservations will soon be eclipsed as the holiday season kicks into high gear.
The company is negotiating terms for several holiday parties and an upcoming wedding, with Pear providing several trips from one location.
Mr. Ciotti admits the company has dramatically changed everyday life for the three friends, all of whom are 1999 graduates of Bishop Canevin High School.
"Our social lives are pretty much on hold these days," he said.
In addition to their driving duties at the Pear, each maintains a full-time day job. Mr. Ciotti works as an information technology consultant. Mr. Conley works in the health-care industry. Mr. Danzuso owns a full-service salon, Dani's Hair Loft, in Kennedy.
After analyzing the Pear business model, they believe it will remain a part-time venture for some time.
"You kind of max out on how many trips you can make each night," Mr. Ciotti said.
Right now, they're content to moonlight for their company.
Mr. Ciotti said, "We've learned to embrace napping because you never know how much sleep you're going to get."