The private ride-coordinating app Uber exists for a single reason. It’s not the ubiquity of smartphones and it’s not the rise of the freelance economy. It’s the fact that taking taxis is the worst, and always has been.
For me and most people I know, taking a cab thrusts me into a shadowy world I don’t like or understand: taximeters (which after the driver fidgets with the keys always end up $2-4 higher than the fare itself); “broken” credit card terminals; being assured that the driver has a “shortcut” to get wherever you’re going; and of course never being able to get one when you need it (Washington, DC, and Los Angeles — I’m looking at you). It’s all just so painful.
Uber neatly solves all these problems: no taximeter, no credit card terminals, a GPS map that makes it obvious if your driver is screwing with you, and even “surge pricing” to encourage drivers to come out at times of peak demand (and push notifications when surge pricing has ended).
But you don’t have to use Uber very many times to realize that it comes with its own slew of problems. It seems I can never take an Uber without running into one or more of these issues:
Drivers and cars don’t match the app
If an Uber driver’s car is in the shop, he’ll borrow a friend’s, and riders have no way of knowing whether that car is insured, whether it’s safe, or even whether it’s stolen. Always compare the license plate in your app to the one on the car: if they don’t match, don’t get in.
The same is true of drivers, although it’s not particularly easy or fun when your car shows up to make a split-second decision about whether the picture and the driver look “enough” alike.
Drivers accept a ride and then…go do something else
I once ordered a pickup in Brooklyn and the driver who accepted was driving the other direction on the Williamsburg Bridge. He at least had the good sense to call and ask if I wanted to wait for him to turn around.
Another time the driver who accepted my pickup was getting gas. After 5 minutes of watching his car sitting still on my iPhone screen, I canceled the ride and ordered another. And the same driver accepted! Which brings me to…
The driver selection process is completely opaque
As the story above shows, there’s no way to participate in the process of choosing your driver. After a ride you can provide feedback, but you can’t do something as simple as marking whether or not you want that driver to pick you up in the future. And if the ride doesn’t take place, there’s no way to provide feedback at all. If you or or driver cancels the call before the ride begins, you can’t indicate whether you canceled the call because the car or driver didn’t match, if you canceled it because your driver was busy getting gas, if you didn’t feel safe, or any other reason.
Uber doesn’t collect that information because it doesn’t want that information: if it were receiving reports in real time about unregistered drivers or vehicles, it would have a duty to act on that information immediately.
Likewise, every time someone borrows their friend’s Uber account to give a few rides, or uses a different car than the one they registered with Uber, Uber still gets their cut of the fare.
I am personally unconvinced, however, that their studied ignorance will protect them against the coming wave of lawsuits. Fortunately, settling out of court with Uber’s victims is their problem, not mine.
Uber operates as a semi-criminal enterprise
It’s no secret why Uber works this way: it’s because their business in many markets is in violation of applicable laws and regulations. While their customers may be hipsters, businesspeople, and travel hackers, the independent contractors who provide rides for those users are not: they’re by definition the kind of people who are willing, for whatever reason, to work as freelance contractors, using their personal vehicles and personal liability insurance to provide rides to strangers, all while operating in a legal grey area.
I don’t use Uber very much, for the same reason I don’t use cabs very much: I walk, bike, and take public transportation as much as possible.
But I do use Uber, because sometimes you need to get somewhere by car, but don’t want to go to the trouble and expense of renting one or trying to use a taxi (see above).
Still, I wish Uber weren’t a bunch of criminals, I wish the rider-driver matching mechanism was more transparent and that the rider had more control over it, and I wish it were possible to alert Uber to shady behavior that makes you cancel a ride before it begins.
But I’m not holding my breath.
If you haven’t experienced the joys of Uber for yourself yet, feel free to use my signup referral link. You’ll receive a free ride (worth up to $20 at the time of writing, although it periodically changes) in your account immediately and I’ll receive one as soon as you take your first ride. If you end up finding Uber useful, I’ve written before about prepaying for Uber rides by sending yourself gift credit $25 at a time; it counts as a redeemable travel purchase with the Barclaycard Arrival+ MasterCard, and you can spend it down over time – gift credit doesn’t expire (until Uber does!).