In recent years I have been using the Uber ride-hailing app more frequently. As time goes by, however, I'm having second thoughts.
Let me count the pluses and minuses.
On the Plus Side
-- During the afternoon rush hour in New York, you can get an Uber to take you somewhere. Theoretically, you could take a taxi, but between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. the taxis are all on their way to Queens to end their 12-hour shifts.
As I understand it, this is more convenient for the taxi drivers, who like picking up drunks after bars close starting around 2 a.m., which is more lucrative work than helping commuters get home.
In the bad old days before Uber, I used to take pedicabs to Penn Station or from the station to dinner appointments, sort of like in Calcutta. I am not making this up.
|Transit innovation, circa 2005, in New York|
-- Using Uber is often easier than driving, especially in traffic-choked cities, and also where parking can be difficult to find and expensive. On one occasion we spent $62 to stable the car during a two-hour museum visit in Manhattan.
-- Uber networks are more extensive than taxi networks in every place where we spend time, including the suburbs and New York's outer boroughs.
-- Uber drivers are nice. They are independent operators, and the Uber system of riders and drivers rating each other provides a mutual incentive to be pleasant. In the last year I have talked with several interesting Uber drivers -- a military veteran, a young drummer trying to break into the Nashville music scene and, yesterday, a green-haired immigrant who grew up speaking Gaelic on a farm in Ireland. You don't meet folks like these every day.
Taxi drivers, by contrast, are employees and, perhaps with reason, they seem to be employees who hate their jobs. They expect to be tipped 20 percent on top of the higher taxi rates, even if they spend the whole ride talking on their cell phones and even if they do not help you wrassle your suitcases out of the trunk.
-- Uber is less expensive. Usually when we have flown from the West Coast to our home in the East, we have taken a cab to the house, 15 minutes away; the cost with tip is about $60.
One unrelated problem is that these flights typically arrive in the late evening, around the time the sidewalks are being rolled up in our town. We arrive home to an empty refrigerator and no place to get a meal, which makes me cranky.
The last time we tried something different: We took a shuttle to an airport hotel whose restaurant was open until 1 a.m. After eating dinner, we spent less than half the taxi charge taking an Uber home. The net cost -- dinner and ride -- was about the same as the taxi ride would have been.
(Besides the old no-tip policy, the Uber ride cost less because it did not involve airport fees for the local taxi bureaucracy and for two attendants stationed 24 hours a day at every terminal's taxi rank to distribute little pieces of paper telling riders how much their rides would cost.)
On the Minus Side
-- Even after the departure of Uber's lauded and loathsome CEO, the company culture is a problem needing solutions. You've read about this in the papers, and so I won't say more.
-- Uber does not treat drivers well. Some examples from New York:
1) The company has cut its rates to compete against Lyft and other competitors. This may help build Uber's market share, but it's bad for individual drivers. One told me recently that his income had dropped by half in recent years.
2) The company has raised rates for trips to some fancy neighborhoods, but has not increased drivers' pay for those high-revenue rides. This violates the fundamental business premise -- that Uber connects drivers and riders, collects a small fee for the service and then credits the remainder to drivers. Uber's new we-decide-how-much-to-pay-you policy makes drivers more like Uber employees and less like owner-operators.
3) The two previous points have led some Uber drivers to act like taxi drivers. Manhattan riders have begun to report that Uber drivers now expect cash tips and down-rate passengers who do not provide those tips.
-- Uber now allows passengers to tip Uber drivers through the Uber app. I'm not exactly sure why this bugs me so much, but it does. Fundamentally, I don't like tipping service providers just for not being mean to me. Also, I like to think of Uber drivers as independent business owners and not low-wage workers whose incomes require gratuities from kind strangers. Seems more dignified the old way.
Personally, I'd prefer to pay more for the rides and to skip the tips.
And let's face it: If the opportunity to make tip income were a genuine incentive for better service, surly cab drivers would have cleaned up their act (and their cars) two or three generations ago.
-- Uber economics favors the omnivorous growth of the company. It is now one of those firms that comprise what I call Big Algo -- businesses based on algorithms and with enormous valuations. The premise of these valuations is that the companies can expand far into the non-algorithmic world, counting on ready investor funding all the way.
With Uber, the plan was to get out in front of the self-driving car thing. The company hired an Alphabet (Google) engineer working on the same technology and may have infringed patents to aid in its progress toward the goal. The long-term plan was for Uber to get rid of its pesky drivers (and, ultimately, the nation's pesky truck drivers) and to manage more and more, and ideally even all, of the traffic on the nation's roads.
This is grandiosity on steroids, and I don't like it.
Since Uber began that initiative and got busted for its tactics, our understanding of self-driving technology has been refined. It appears that there will not be rollouts of fleets of self-driving cars in the next few years but, instead, the gradual incorporation of self-driving technology in new cars.
Long story short, there may be hope for Uber. As for me, I'm running out of patience.