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.