39 Shared Rides

Thirty nine times in a twelve month period. That’s how many times I took an Uber last year according to a recent email I received from the company. Given how often I travel to places that don’t currently have Uber service that averages out to more than one ride per week, and probably qualifies me to provide a legitimate, insightful review based on my personal experience. Certainly the ride-sharing service has revolutionized the taxi business. In MBA parlance we could call it a disruptive technology, or at least a disruptive service based on new technology.

I was slow to adopt Uber. I take regular taxis all the time, multiple times per week, and I had read about it, mostly concerning controversy of its introduction into various cities in North America and Europe. I only got the urge to use them one day after I was once again peeved by the conventional taxi service available to me in Northern Virginia.

Browsing through Yellow Pages for a taxi, which we used to do in the old days, one is assailed by large bold print half or full page ads for a myriad of services. It looks like plenty of choices with catchy easy-to-remember telephone numbers, and names involving bright, happy colors such as yellow, red, blue, white and so on. It transpires, and should be no surprise I suppose, that many cab companies are not independent, but have common ownership. So the large advertisements all ostensibly competing with each other pretty much take you to the same service. The flavor of monopolistic conveyance I ended up relying on for my frequent trips to the airport or downtown was Red Top Cabs, mainly because I learned the telephone number by heart, which consisted of many threes: 703 333-3333.

Over a decade or so I have found this service to be unreliable and unfriendly in many ways. In recent times, when I called my hard-to-forget number I wouldn’t get a human for at least five minutes or maybe longer. A robot would tell me that all attendants were busy and I would have to hold. Calling another taxi service would only bring me back to the same robot and unavailable pool of operators.

“Hello, how may I help you,” a deep female voice would ask me eventually. “I would like to order a taxi,” I would always say, thinking to myself, well of course you do. At this point the conversation would go one of two ways. She either knew my address immediately thanks to some 1970s-era caller ID and relational database or she would ask me for it. When questioned I would always utter something like, “Don’t you have my address there from my number, I’ve been using you guys for over ten years?” I’m not trying to be problematic as my address has a mix of a and e vowels, some offbeat spelling, and I have an unavoidable Scottish accent, so it can be a game of verbal charades the first time around. “Our system is down,” deep would say, or occasionally she might reply, “I’m just trying to confirm the address.” So, reluctantly, I go through my a for apple and rhymes with Jackal routine and she tells me, “15 to 20 minutes.” Which is Red Top taxi code for one to forty-five minutes.

Other than the annoying time-consuming call, it’s the uncertainty that gets me, especially when the destination is an airport with all of the accretive uncertainties before eventually plopping into that coveted airplane seat. If I assume a forty-five-minute wait the taxi will show up when I hop in the shower. If I assume one minute I stand fully dressed with my hat on, looking out of the window eagerly for half an hour as time passes by glacially.

For the most part, Uber has changed all of that. Using the app you don’t talk to an operator, you can see where the cars are and the direction they are traveling in near real time. That level of transparency removes a lot of uncertainty, and you can interpret the app accordingly for car arrival time if you don’t trust their estimates and you know the local rush and non-rush traffic patterns.

I’ve found the Uber service generally to be quite reliable and cost effective. I’ve also found most or all of the cars to be very acceptable and the drivers to be friendly. What I have noticed, however, over the course of my 12-month 39-ride journey is a trend in cabby proficiency. A trend downward, as in decline. At first I noticed nothing of the sort, my smartphone showed the cars all over the place like houseflies on a cake, and someone came to pick me up promptly, offered me water and mints, and took me efficiently to my destination. But after a while I started to notice things. On two or three occasions, the little chosen car on the GPS map would go the wrong way, and keep going the wrong way while I watched in bewilderment, and the estimated time of arrival would slowly increase like a simmering stew until I abandoned. A couple of times I got drivers that I swear had never driven before. One ever so friendly, patient fellow drove so slowly and would stop or slow down for traffic signs that were on T-junctions, while we had right of way. He was taking me to the airport and eventually, as we arrived, he didn’t ask which airline but continued to follow GPS commands to the airport’s Cartesian origin, which was the middle of a little roundabout between the terminals.

Another time, a lovely, chatty lady could not apparently follow GPS directions, continually missing guidance cues and instructions from the device. I had to read her GPS display from the caddy corner back seat and relay specific instructions verbally with the occasional hand signal. I remember requesting politely that she turn up the air in the car, and she asked me to show her where the fan control was, but I didn’t bother asking to whom the car (and the GPS) belonged.

In recent times, the number of Uber drivers has been doubling every six months or so on average, and judging by this graph (courtesy of Forbes.com) almost exponentially over the past year. This could offer a partial explanation in that we have perhaps exhausted the current qualified labor pool.

In recent times, the number of Uber drivers has been doubling every six months or so on average, and judging by this graph (courtesy of Forbes.com) almost exponentially over the past year. This could offer a partial explanation in that we have perhaps exhausted the current qualified labor pool.

Overall, I think the service is a fantastic idea, the technology is super, and the people are generally friendly and interesting. Some are very competent, while others should not be trying to make a career out of driving. The company is, by many accounts, aggressive in its growth aspirations and continues to offer various new flavors of service and innovative pricing mechanisms. To that end I have an idea for them; a new service I would call Uber U. That is U as in you, and with this new service the driver comes to your house, gets out, sits in the back seat, you hand them water and mints and you drive. Not a bad idea really.


An American Graduation

I remember the weather that summer, as it was uncharacteristically hot for Scotland and there was a rare run on sunglasses. I also retain specific imagery of the teenage music scene at the time: it was the end of glam rock, the maturity of classic rock, the unexpected popularity of disco, and the full frontal assault of punk. I recall in some detail many of my friends and teachers and their ample assortment of colorfully patterned wide-collared clothing as we all struggled with the awkward transition from flares to drainpipes. I remember our stimulating debates in the hallways and classrooms and even today I can describe the senior rec room decor, right down to the coffin-sized wooden “radiogram” that had been donated to the youngsters, which I assume is now in an IKEA museum somewhere. But I don’t remember my high school graduation. I have tried and tried but cannot produce any mental images or footnotes relating to an event that was designed to honor my late 1970’s graduation and passage to the world of college, university, and commerce. I’m fairly sure there must have been some commemoration, and perhaps I did not participate for whatever reason, but currently it escapes me.

Conversely, almost forty years later, I am quite certain that my daughter will not forget her high school graduation in the greater Washington DC metropolitan area. I won’t forget it either. This American graduation cannot be characterized as an event as that implies singularity. A series of events, like baseball’s World Series, it went on and on and continued to amaze and entertain us as we rooted and cheered on the players week after week as they slugged it out in true team spirit. This teenage valediction had all the fanfare and finale uncertainty that you might expect with a Rolling Stones’ farewell tour.

Probably a couple months or so before, clothing, caps and gowns were ordered for the official photographs, which were duly taken well in advance of the big day. Numerous pre-graduation parties were held at homes where kids’ parents could politely meet each other, in many cases for the first time, and probably the last. There was a rehearsal graduation and dinner the night before the ceremony but no rehearsal dinner now that I come to think about it. There was a peculiar mass family breakfast at the school that had no food. Soppy, funny, and insightful parent to offspring messages were captured for eternity in a thick, professionally bound high school yearbook, as parents competed to provide the most succinct, inspirational and memorable memoranda.

The ceremony itself was held in the impressive Washington DC Constitution Hall, where I had previously seen the Foo Fighters and Steve Miller. It was just as packed for this show, although this time featuring about 500 rock stars. Parking was easier for the Foo Fighters, and we didn’t have to line up outside for hours to see Steve Miller. And there were many more celebrations after the formality—the school arranged for an all night pool party complete with DJ at a nearby health club, parent-kid parties continued, and did I mention the gifts? There were gifts, many, many gifts, and also countless fashion-related reasons for shopping throughout the entire experience.

America loves a celebration, and we love to honor our kids and recognize achievement, big or small. Certainly high school graduation is laudable and deserving of our sincere respect and warmest congratulations, and the world badly needs educated kids. Yet, after all of these highly entertaining proceedings I’m still scratching my head trying to recall my own convocation.

Beautiful Belize

As countries go, although Belize is not that large, flying in a Cessna Caravan between each cardinal point on the compass the bucolic landscape seemed to stretch endlessly in all directions. From my viewpoint at an altitude of 3,000 feet, the scenery was an ongoing mixture of pastoral farmland and tidy patchwork swathes of contained forest. It is hard to believe that over 1,000 years ago some one million people inhabited an area now occupied by barely one third of that sum. The Mayans built great cities and places of worship and extended commerce for several hundred thousand square miles throughout what we now call Central America, covering parts of Mexico and enveloping Guatemala and Belize.

Flying is by far the best way to get around Belize.

Flying is by far the best way to get around Belize.

The prevailing theory for the kingdom’s demise continues to be a matter of debate but appears to be, in large part, due to unsustainable human societal practices. As each part of the kingdom competitively built more and more impressive, imposing structures, natural resources were harvested and commoditized for building materials. An insatiable appetite for forest byproducts including wood and ash denuded the entire realm to such an extent that the regional climate changed, denying rain to the burgeoning populace. With an absolute dependency on a host of deities for most consumables, a drought placed tremendous pressure on the Mayan rain gods at the time. Of course, the trickle down effect of rain, or no rain, meant no crops and so on, impacting other divinities, such as the-then fairly popular spiritual position of corn god. Consequently, many gods found themselves in a bind, worshiping day after day, relentlessly, but to no avail. No rain, no water, no crops, no food. The gods turned desperately to bloodletting and significantly stepped up human sacrificing but still the rain did not come. And so the empire dissolved, as one million people in the area now known as Belize scattered across the continent, leaving the Mayan megacities to fall into disrepair and ruin.

The former Mayan metropolis of Laminai.

The former Mayan metropolis of Laminai.

In addition to the Mayan cities of Laminai, Chichen Itza, and Tulum, I have visited and poked around the ruins of many great empires that have come and gone over the past few millennia such as pre-Mayan Teotihuacan, the Khmer, and Inca treasures including Machu Picchu. Some causes of decline are easier to grasp and understand, such as regional warfare or the ultimate decimation of the Inca civilization by Spanish conquerors. But the erosion of Maya for the want of plaster and other building supplies seems somewhat random and implausible today. Especially when we look at subsequent custodians and residents of these once-vast empires. I’ve caught myself using the expression “history repeats itself,” which causes me to ruminate on the fragility of our fairly young civilization and the number of major reboots we’ve endured in just a few millennia, since many scientists today suggest that over-harvesting fossil fuels, marine life, and other un-throttled consumptive behavior is impacting our climate on a global scale.

As many folks do, on our first family trip to Belize, we started to form an opinion of the country by drawing and discussing comparisons. We traveled by boat, small aircraft and SUV to various parts of the country including the reef areas around San Pedro and Ambergris Caye, Belize City and to various locations in the interior including San Ignacio and Orange Walk.

On San Pedro, where we stayed, it appeared to have the lawlessness and anarchism that you might expect to find in Cancun at spring break, although, for the most part, it was relaxed and laid back like Saipan. The traffic was as disobedient as you might endure during any daylight hour in Hanoi, Vietnam, albeit on a much smaller scale. We generally agreed that it was hot, sweaty and noisy resembling what you may encounter in a mid-sized beach town in Thailand. At night it could be as dark as Australia’s Fitzroy Island’s black sky canvas draped across the Great Barrier Reef.

Generally it was overpriced for the tourist crowd with dollar-pegged exchange rates like you might find in the Bahamas, but it was good to see pictures of Queen Elizabeth once more, looking young, beautiful, and majestic.

Generally it was overpriced for the tourist crowd with dollar-pegged exchange rates like you might find in the Bahamas, but it was good to see pictures of Queen Elizabeth once more, looking young, beautiful, and majestic.

One of the many highlights was a spelunking expedition through miles of underground caverns to see Mayan skeletal remains and other ancient treasures. A National Geographic-endorsed tour, this one worked every muscle in your body and every fear in your mind. We endured crawling through cramped spaces, squeezing through rock fissures, swimming through the darkest of underground streams, and clambering over and under jagged rocks, stalagmites and stalactites. That tour would not be available in the good old USA.

 The diving was fabulous: green turtles, shivers of sharks, large grouper, barracuda, and more fish than we had seen on other recent dives.

The diving was fabulous: green turtles, shivers of sharks, large grouper, barracuda, and more fish than we had seen on other recent dives.

Not quite as colonial as Zimbabwe and not as grimy as Manila, within a few short days we grew to appreciate all that Belize and San Pedro had to offer. Even though Belize City could be as expensive as New Zealand, as dodgy as a favela in Rio, as hustling and gritty as a small-scale Mexico City, and as disorganized as New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport, we can see why many folks fall in love with Belize.