Several weeks ago, the ride-hailing service reached out to him again. Uber told Mr. Goebel that it was returning to Düsseldorf and offered him a bonus of 500 euros, or about $560, if he hit certain driving targets.
“It’s good. I’m busy,” Mr. Goebel, who had taken work driving patients to medical appointments, said from behind the wheel of a Mercedes-Benz C-Class. “People are happy Uber is here.”
Düsseldorf is the start of an effort by Uber’s chief executive, Dara Khosrowshahi, to reboot its business in Germany ahead of a planned initial public offering next year. When Uber re-entered this city of 600,000 last month, it was its first expansion in Germany since 2015, when it left every town except Berlin and Munich.
Germany is a test for whether Mr. Khosrowshahi can substantially bolster Uber’s business in places where it has had a problematic history. Since taking over late last year, he has withdrawn Uber from unprofitable areas like Southeast Asia and Russia to cut the company’s losses, which amounted to $1.07 billion in the third quarter.
But Mr. Khosrowshahi must also show growth ahead of taking Uber public next year, in what would likely be one of the biggest-ever technology offerings. As a result, he is refocusing on Europe, where the company can typically charge higher fares.
“They have identified Continental Europe as one of their major growth areas, but they are realizing once again that going abroad isn’t easy,” said Nils Stieglitz, president and managing director of the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management, who has tracked Uber’s business.
Yet the country has a tangle of licensing rules that make it hard to recruit independent drivers. Germany requires drivers to pass health and driving tests, as well as receive a business license that includes a bookkeeping exam. Another rule orders drivers to return to a home base between trips, limiting how many rides can be made. Car-pooling services are banned.
Over the past year, Mr. Khosrowshahi has visited Germany twice to apologize for the company’s past behavior and to lobby to change some of the transportation laws. In one encouraging sign for Uber, the government said in March that it would update its transportation policy, though the deliberations could take years.
“There are still aspects of the regulation that we think could be tweaked to make our model slightly more scalable,” said Pierre-Dimitri Gore-Coty, the head of Uber’s operations in Europe.
“It’s very hard for them to compete on so many fronts at once,” Markus Villig, Taxify’s chief executive, said of Uber. Unless Uber can win major changes to German regulations, he said, “they are in a very tight spot.”
Uber said it had selected Düsseldorf as its re-entry point for expanding in Germany after seeing that customers there had logged into its app more than 150,000 times since January, even though no cars were on the road. Düsseldorf, about 350 miles west of Berlin, is a business hub and home to popular festivals that draw travelers. One boisterous area of town, called “The Longest Bar,” has more than 260 bars and dance clubs.
Uber knew it could not open in Düsseldorf as it had in 2014, when it first arrived. That year, Uber didn’t bother warning local officials it was coming. One morning, the app simply went live, and anybody was free to transform his or her car into a taxi without a license.
“I was very skeptical because of what they did do in the past, but I was surprised by the new way of communicating with us,” Mr. Matheisen said.
By August, Uber was making final preparations to put cars back on the road. It opened an office in a co-working space in a downtown high-rise, where curious visitors can pop in to speak with staff about starting to drive. It plans to enter another German city, which it hasn’t identified, by the end of the year and several more in 2019.
Even after returning to Düsseldorf, Uber has faced an obstacle: taxi drivers. While the company has tried to work with taxi operators, dozens protested outside Uber’s office last month, blasting their horns and snarling traffic.
Dennis Klusmeier, head of the city’s largest taxi dispatch company, Taxi Düsseldorf, said Uber drivers didn’t comply with the law that requires private-hire drivers to return to a garage between rides. Holding a large law book that outlined German transportation rules, Mr. Klusmeier said he was exploring a legal challenge.
“Us Germans like a law book,” he joked.
Ufuk Demirel, an Uber driver in Düsseldorf who has completed more than 300 rides over the past month, said a taxi driver had recently swerved to cut him off. The Düsseldorf police said six incidents between taxi and Uber drivers had been reported, including one in which an Uber driver was forced to stop by taxi drivers, then verbally abused and harassed.
“It’s not so popular,” said Dennis Zimney, who works at a downtown hotel. “Most people don’t know Uber.”