Despite the fact that it's currently banned in Los Angeles, UberX is defiantly still up and running. I used it for the first time this weekend. This so-called ride-sharing service from San Francisco-based Uber Technologies is supposedly the future of cabs. Much like similar services Lyft and Sidecar, UberX seeks to "disrupt" the taxi industry by using average people with a car (and without a taxi license) to shuttle others around. But it's pretty clear that they shouldn't be allowed to.
Using UberX was easy, affordable and pretty convenient. My driver was very nice, and I never felt in danger during my 11 minute, 53 second trip (the emailed receipt has stats) in what was essentially a random neighbor's Toyota Corolla. But that doesn't change the fact that Uber's ride-share service—which is currently operating in Los Angeles in defiance of the city's cease-and-desist order—should be shut down immediately.
I've lived without a car in Los Angeles for about two years now. Months ago, one of my brothers in Chicago emailed me a $10 credit for Uber. He and my other brother both swear by their black car service, and use it all the time. Neither of my two brothers in Chicago have cars and they both really can't say enough nice things about the service. But they've only ever used Uber's black car service, which (as far as we know) only uses city-licensed cars. Uber's ride-share service isn't available in Chicago.
So, when I found that I didn't have any singles for the bus, I decided to try out Uber with a little help from my brother's $10 credit. When my driver arrived (within 7 minutes of my hailing it through the app) my experience with Uber was almost immediately awkward. I approached the passenger side door of the Toyota Corolla and saw a plaid shirt on the front seat along with an orange on the floor. Was I supposed to sit in the back? That seems a bit... strange for a ride-share app, even if it was trying to emulate the full livery cab experience. My driver saw me opening the front passenger side door and kindly chucked the shirt in the backseat.
Aside from the initial awkwardness of the experience, everything else went more or less smoothly. Like I said, my driver was really nice. He looked like he was maybe in his mid-30s and told me that he drove for Uber part-time on the weekends to supplement his day-job at an auto body shop. Uber takes a 20% cut of every ride, he told me, and he drives about 10-15 people per day. I asked if he'd picked up any weirdos. Just drunk people, he said, but no one really creepy or anything. His friends who were cabbies weren't too happy about his part-time job. We shared a laugh about the obviousness of that statement.
And honestly, I'm not a huge fan of the taxi system in Los Angeles. It's virtually impossible to hail a cab on the street, unless you can find a hotel nearby. And unless my destination is the airport, cabbies in L.A. never know where anything is by memory; I'm almost always looking up directions (or at the very least an address) for them on my phone. But Uber doesn't really solve any of these problems with their disruption of the industry. The first thing my UberX driver asked me when I got in the cab was where I wanted to go. Wasn't this part of the process that should be automated with an app?
Those are just personal inconveniences, though. The real problem with UberX, and why it shouldn't be allowed to operate, is that its lack of oversight is cause for serious concern. When it comes to regulation, I tend to favor explicit consumer information as a bare-bones pre-requisite for putting a product or service into the world. Right now, Uber makes only sparse information available to the average consumer, even on their website.
Do you know what it does say there? "UberX: The convenience of Uber at a lower price with mid-range cars in a variety of colors. Seats up to 4 people." No mention of the fact that this is an unlicensed taxi in every sense of the concept. No mention that your driver will not be licensed by the city and will pull up in a car indistinguishable from any other on the road. These facts don't have to matter to you personally, but they probably should be considered when we're talking about issues of public safety.
I was never worried about my well-being during my UberX ride. I'm a large, white male, and I was traveling during daytime hours on relatively active streets. For me, using UberX was merely socially awkward. But we live in a world in which 1 in 5 American women have experienced sexual violence, where physical danger and robberies are all too common. Getting in an UberX car, for most people, becomes a complex mental equation about whether they trust the driver of this random Toyota Corolla—and by extension, whether they trust Uber.
Unfortunately, Uber gives us no reason to. I spent a large part of my morning going back and forth with the company trying to get the barest of details about what kind of training and screening UberX drivers in Los Angeles go through. Every response to my questions was boilerplate non-answer bullshit, wherein they tried to hang their hat on a temporary operating agreement with the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). Specific questions about their screening process went unanswered in the name of protecting trade secrets.
Giz: How many drivers have applied to drive in L.A. since you started in the city and how many have been rejected after not passing the background check and/or training?
Uber: Thousands have applied but we don't release specific numbers. We're committed to providing the safest most reliable service possible and our rejection process reflects that.
Giz: My driver yesterday said that his background check and training occurred at an office in Santa Monica. Is that the only such location in Southern California? Is that conducted by in-house Uber staff or do you bring in outside firms to conduct training? How long are these training sessions and could you explain what's involved?
Uber: We have several offices in Southern California and our training is carried out by Uber staff. The interviewing and training processes are intense and rigorous but we don't share the exact recipe for the secret Uber sauce.
Secret Uber sauce, indeed.
Uber wants to have it both ways. They distance themselves from the drivers, saying that "We don't employee [note: I think they mean employ] any of the drivers, or own the cars." But they also understand that they have to give consumers some amount of confidence in their product by using background checks (which is part of their temporary agreement with CPUC) and stressing in however vague terms that they do their own inspection of vehicles.
I spoke over the phone with Christopher Chow at the California Public Utilities Commission and he told me that they can expect a new decision at the state level on ride-sharing regulation either next week or later this month. Uber in Los Angeles is clearly biding their time in defiance of the city's cease and desist, deferring the move to comply with L.A. until this state decision is handed down.
Uber has met resistance at every turn, but not all of it exists simply to protect legacy business models. Objection to neoliberal fantasies around "disruption" and the free market isn't very trendy in Silicon Valley at the moment. But let's push these unlicensed cabs out of existence. It's better to put disruption in harm's way than ourselves.
Photo: Downtown Los Angeles by Matt Novak