Can disruptive technology provide a fix for social issues?
Silicon Valley darling Uber may be on to something. The service–which provides town car, SUV, or luxury vehicle service with a few taps of a smartphone–is considered the killer app for inefficient taxi service. Sitting pretty on close to $50 million dollars in venture funding, Uber is rapidly expanding its operations.
Uber is not without controversy. It’s a premium service with a premium price tag. The New York Times, in reporting on Uber’s new lower-priced hybrid option shows the high cost of convenience:
In San Francisco, for example, the hybrid cars will cost $5 for the base fee, and then $3.25 a mile after that. By contrast, the town cars cost $8 for the base fee and then $4.95 a mile. Taxis in San Francisco cost $3.16 a mile including a tip of 15 percent.
In addition to the steep cost, Uber is currently embroiled in lawsuits around skirting consumer protections, ran afoul of taxi laws in a few states, and is having problems fitting their tech into areas with safety rules about handheld devices on the road. Combine that with shady “surge pricing” practices that increase the price of a car in real time with demand, and there is a huge problem. (Also, see Paul Carr’s discussion of the ethics of hypercapitalism and Uber here and here.)
However, most analysis of Uber’s costs and benefits leave out one huge piece of the appeal: the premium car service removes the racism factor when you need a ride.
In 1999, actor Danny Glover made headlines by filing a taxi discrimination claim in New York City, noting that cabs failed to stop for him due to the color of his skin. Good Morning America experimented with having a black man and a white man hail cabs again in 2009 and found that the racial profiling still continued. In 2010, Fernando Mateo, head of the New York State Federation of Cab Drivers, encouraged racial profiling in the name of safety. Though it has been over a decade since Danny Glover made the issue a national conversation, the landscape hasn’t changed much.
As a black woman, I am generally seen as less of a threat than my black male peers. But that doesn’t mean my business is encouraged or wanted.I stopped using DC cabs back in 2003, when they were using zoning practices that ensured every time I stepped into a cab I wouldn’t get out for less than $25.00, even if I was just going ten minutes down the street. As I learned DC better, I figured out all the routes serviced by buses and trains and committed to walking the rest. The addition of a bike share program to DC has almost completely eliminated my need for a cab rides. A few years later, I repeated the process in New York and Boston, having learned the hard way that I could not count on getting a cab if I needed one, no matter how I was dressed or where I was going.
I had dismissed Uber outright, until a friend convinced me to take a second look. My friend is young and white and, when I asked her why she chose to use the expensive black car service as opposed to any other DC cab, she informed me that her neighborhood isn’t well-liked by cab drivers. As it turns out, while my friend could normally get a cab to stop for her, she suffered the same issues with cabs that black urbanities usually face. Though it is technically illegal for drivers to ask where you are going before allowing you in the cab (New York has clear rules about this; DC has similar rules that are not on any governmental site), it is a common practice. So, my friend noted with a shrug, she’d rather pay the extra five bucks for a fuss-free experience than hail cab after cab, hoping to find a driver to take her to her next destination.
I downloaded the service and tried it out one hectic day when I was on a tight schedule and had to get out to a part of Virginia not serviced by Metro. The price made me gag, but the rest of the experience was flawless: I knew exactly when my car would arrive, I received a text when they reached my location, I gave them a location without quibbling, and rode there in peace. In spite of wallet, I found myself reaching for the service more and more, even though my average ride was close to $25. Feeling slightly embarrassed at continuing to pay those exorbitant fees, on my most recent trip I decided to go back to my old way of buses, subways, and taxicabs.
My night in NYC went fine, with my feet, the train, and friends making sure all went well on the transportation front. The following day, however, I started to run into the usual trouble. Running too late to catch the train from Manhattan to JFK, I tried hailing a cab in the crowded streets around Times Square. Even though dozens of cabs were on the streets (and hours away from the next shift change), four different cab drivers claimed they were off-duty, despite their lights declaring otherwise. Still more sped around me, not even bothering to pull to the side for the lone black girl on the corner but happily picking up the white couple a few feet away. I started trudging to the nearest hotel, hoping to fall on the mercy of the concierge, when the 11th cab I spotted heading up my way finally picked me up.
Seven hours later, in San Francisco, I went through the whole process again, taking the BART to CalTrain and the CalTrain to Palo Alto transit center–only to face a hostile cab line for the second time in a day. (That will teach me not to pre-book a SuperShuttle.) There is no bus service to my neighborhood. My options were the cab line or Uber. The only other recourse would be to walk or hop a shuttle to the Stanford campus, then transfer to the one line that travels up the main road toward my home and walk the remaining half-mile back to the crib. I gave in and faced the cab line. Three out of four drivers waved me on. After the one nice cabdriver dropped me off, I thought about the $14 trip, and wondered if all of those little indignities were worth the saved amount.
I shouldn’t have to pay for premium service to get a racism-free ride experience–yet that is often the choice that I am faced with. All my years of being carless taught me that this type of racism, like street harassment, is often part of the landscape when you rely on mass transit options to get around. And yet, there isn’t much of a choice here. Uber is simply not affordable for anything but the occasional trip.
And yet, I find myself wanting to continue to support Uber, despite their sky-high prices and shady practices. I couldn’t quite explain why, until I read Clinton Yates’s piece on The Root DC:
It’s a familiar story: If I’m not wearing a shirt and tie, I’ll rarely try to get a cab. And if I’ve got on my usual get-up of mohawk, T-shirt and Vans sneakers, people laugh openly if I stick out my hand and/or yell, “Taxi!” It’s like the expressions on their faces say: “Ha! You think you’re getting a cab looking like that? Negro–please.”
That’s why I’m dismayed by the proposed regulations that could potentially put Uber out of business. It would be a step backward for those of us who are willing to pay more money for a respectable transaction rather than take our chances on the street and be degraded in the process. [...]
Standing two blocks from the White House last month, I waited half an hour to get a cab. Ten empty ones passed me by. I know there are legal kinks to be worked out, but it would be unfortunate if the city managed to get rid of a useful company with a guiding principle based on the color of the money in your pocket and not the color of your skin.