A Lyft car crosses Market Street in San Francisco.
Jeff Chiu • Associated Press,
I traveled a thousand miles to share a ride …
- Article by: David Banks
- Star Tribune
- July 3, 2014 - 6:14 PM
So I went on vacation last month and got taken for a ride.
Several rides, actually. I’d stand on the sidewalk, pull up the controversial company’s app on my phone, tap the screen, then watch a little icon of a car wiggle in confusion on a map — this was in Boston, which (part of its charm) is so not on a grid — but ultimately gyrate in my direction.
Generally, within five minutes, a decent-looking real car would pull up — which I would recognize because the app had told me what to expect — and I would greet the driver by name, and vice versa, because the app had told us whom to expect.
I’d get in and, before long, talk would turn to what a great service this is.
Know what? It’s true.
At least for the time being.
I’d signed up for both Uber and its competitor, Lyft, here in the Twin Cities, thinking I’d get a feel for things before I took the trip. I never actually summoned a ride — it was always easier to get in my car and drive. For all the angst here over transit and regional planning vs. freedom, this remains a happy-wheels town.
I didn’t have a car in Boston, though; I wouldn’t have known where to park it. (Yes, I’ve heard that line, too.) So I walked a lot. Used the subway some. And joined the modern world.
Although I’m too late to call myself an early adopter on ride-sharing, I figure I’m still ahead of the broad curve, so allow me to play scout and share what I learned:
• Whether or not ride-sharing is easier or less expensive than a cab, it feels like it is. You can estimate your fare in advance, and once the trip is over, you just get out and go. The bill is settled electronically; you’ll get an e-mail. You just have to have a credit card on file. (The more places, the merrier, right?)
• You should be an extrovert, or at least be willing to fake it. In a cab, you can sulk in the back seat or pretend to do work that could be done at no other time. With Uber, you’re in for a chat. (Even more so with Lyft, with which, I understand, all rides are to begin with a fist bump. Just thinking about that gives me the willies.)
• The drivers are at least a little distracted. How could they not be, what with an app to monitor, a GPS to reprogram, an unfamiliar location to find and a conversation to maintain, probably about soccer? They don’t have a map of the city imprinted on their brains, as cabbies do. Actually, the cabbies I’ve ridden with don’t seem thus endowed.
• Every driver has a dream; they’re doing this on the side. (Kind of like every waiter is an aspiring actor.) But they’re good dreams. One driver was studying for an advanced degree in engineering. One was applying for work with Jet Blue. One was hoping to hook up with whomever he was talking to on his phone. Which brings us to …
• Not every ride is high-quality. One of the drivers was uncomfortably assertive on the road, though he clearly had an eye for threading the needle. Another — let’s charitably call him Lurch — seemed inches from an accident at all times. When one of the questions about these newfangled services is whose insurance covers whom, this gives a person pause.
And that’s why I conclude that the shine is going to wear off. As the services grow and pull in a wider range of drivers and customers, the overall experience will be diluted. It’s the nature of things.
That doesn’t mean ride-sharing is a passing fad. It’ll coexist and compete with traditional taxis, but it’s in uncharted territory, so rules must be written.
In the Twin Cities, Minneapolis is taking the lead on that, with City Council committee consideration possible this week. It’s a constructive approach that hasn’t occurred everywhere. Even as I was Ubering around last month in the uber-college-town of Cambridge, seedbed of innovation, Cambridge was flirting with rules that would have driven unlicensed ride-sharing services out of town.
In Minneapolis, the services have been operating illegally, but it’s brought them to a point of legitimacy, which does raise an age-old question: Is it better to get permission, or to act and ask forgiveness?
It’s never an easy one to answer.
David Banks is at David.Banks@startribune.com.
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