THE GIG ECONOMY, LOVE IT OR LYFT IT

 

At first glance the chance to pay, for instance, $15 for a ride to the airport instead of $26, is a no-brainer. That’s pretty much the economic equation behind the decision to take Lyft or Uber rather than a conventional cab. But several other factors occasionally come into play, namely:  How much of a driver’s life story do you wish to hear?  Might there be a traffic issue better solvable by a “professional?” And, considering safety, is an old, dented and smelly Corolla the last vehicle you ever wish to travel in?

 

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Taxis are simple.  In a large city you can stand on a corner with reasonable certainty of hailing a ride in a reasonable amount of time.  The driver may be gruff in manner.  In fact, the possible physical and personality traits that would prevent you from wanting to live closely with him (taxi drivers are almost always male) are limitless.  However, taxi etiquette generally keeps you silent in the back seat, behind a partition. There, you ponder which obscure African or Middle Eastern nation he is from while watching the meter tick, tick, tick inexorably higher.  At the end of the trip you calculate his tip-worthiness, a decision made both instantly and intimately.

 

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Uber and Lyft are different.  You know the cost of the ride before you enter and, if you are old enough to remember taking standard taxis, you have an endorphin rush knowing roughly how much money you are saving.

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There is no partition, no meter and no tipping.  You will be free, after being dropped off, to “rate” your satisfaction on a 1-5 scale, and decide whether and how much to tip, in on-line anonymity.   The fact that you have “hailed” a ride via smartphone and the driver is identified by first-name makes ride sharing seem personal.  Sometimes, the driver’s baby pictures are on the dashboard for you to admire and ask the usual inanities, e.g., “How old is he?”  “What’s her name?” Or, if you are taking a ride at midnight you might feel compelled to ask:  “Who’s babysitting now?”  Resist this temptation.

Asking personal questions is human nature but can lead one down a rabbit hole.  Few people have aspired to become Lyft drivers.  There is often a dissertation not finished, a divorce, an unexpected corporate downsizing.  Sometimes, you learn you are a driver’s first or second ride.  You learn this because they are unable to operate the app or the GPS. When they ask you for directions, it’s a bad sign.

 

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One of my earliest memories is taxi-related.  Circa 1961, at age four, I traveled in a carpool to kindergarten in West Philadelphia.  Each day, a yellow “Checker” cab retrieved me and three other neighborhood kids from our mothers at the corner.  Could you imagine sending your child to school with a stranger nowadays?  No seatbelts, either.

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The cab featured an open area in front of its large back seat with a freestanding swivel-able stool we (inaccurately) called “the rumble seat.”  Each day we vied to be “the one” who sat on the stool.  Due to excessive strife, I’m sure the mothers eventually worked out a rotation, but the daily rumble seat controversy introduced to me the concept of dog-eat-dog competition.

The following year, I commenced being walked or driven to Gompers Elementary School.  Around the same time, my mother belatedly learned to drive.  Taxis thus became, for me, something to ride only on rare visits to New York City.  The children who’d joined me in the taxi, along with most of the residents of the neighborhood, disappeared like characters in a Chagall painting in a frenzy of “white flight.”  Due to some combination of inertia and, I hope, an all-too-rare lack of knee-jerk prejudice, my family didn’t move.  Yet, for better or worse or just different, the neighborhood changed  before one could even process the change.  I imagine that’s how taxi drivers feel about the arrival of Uber and Lyft.

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Taxis are still desirable in several contexts.  For instance, when we were in London last fall and needed to travel to Charring Cross Station, the “app” foretold a wait of ten minutes.  Breathing fumes beside horrendous downtown traffic, ten became fifteen and, eventually, twenty.   We became increasingly stressed about missing our reserved train to Edinburgh. Finally, we gave up and flagged a taxi. This “cancellation” on our part resulted in a $5 penalty.  It doesn’t seem fair.  But who wants to spend an hour on the phone to reverse a $5 fee?

It turns out our cancellation was serendipitous.  A demonstration roiled city center, thus the worse-than-usual traffic, and all the GPS-recommended routes were blocked.  A London cabbie, whose license is granted only after he passes an exam worthy of a PhD in geography and cartography, wended his way through a maze to deposit us at the exact correct spot to enter the massive train station.

Conversely, in Boston, we were first-day customers of a new Lyft driver.  Fresh off a farm in New Hampshire she excelled in cuteness and vivacity.  But she entirely lacked every other driver-related credential.  Not only did she not know which bridge headed to Cambridge, she wasn’t sure her GPS worked. “It’s been sending me strange places all day,” she explained.  Apparently, she also wasn’t sure her mirrors worked since she turned backwards and swiveled her head each time she sought to change lanes.  While my wife, Katie, generously offered career and relationship advice throughout the harrowing ride, I developed a headache from cringing and would have happily paid some grumpy old guy an extra $20.

Unknown-1.jpeg    Other highlights of Boston Lyft rides included the out-of-work musician with the 1990’s-era Civic apparently retrieved from Demolition Derby that had “check engine,” “check tires” and “check brakes” sensors lit at once – like a Christmas display on the dashboard; the Brazilian driver who danced the samba in his seat throughout, and the seventeen-year-old “covering” for her boyfriend who asked if we’d mind if she vaped. “Yes,” we answered, and a sullenly silent ride ensued.

 

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One need only look at the taxi line at the airport to know the industry is never coming back.  Passengers rush past the “professionals” to reach the “app stand.”

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It’s simple economics for the customer, but sad to consider how many livelihoods, once deemed secure, have been ruined.  On the other hand, Lyft and Uber serve neighborhoods taxis will not.  They offer flexible hours for part-time workers. And if you are being picked up on a cold or rainy day, you need not stand outside to wait.

Time marches on.  Taxis were an industry ripe for disruption.  Consider it done.  (You can rate this story from 1-5 stars, 5 being the best.  Tips are optional).

 

 

 

 

 

 

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