Gig Economy

Uber Nation

By Andrej Mrevlje |

I took my first Uber late in my life. There weren’t any Uber in my youth. There wasn’t anything but public transportation and taxis for a long, long time, right? And when I was young, taking a taxi was always an adventure. Riding London cabs was fun, exotic and special – with their big, comfortable passenger space and extremely competent and trustworthy drivers – while using a “tassi” in Rome was a challenge. Taxi driving is considered a family profession in Rome, passed from father to son, and so a taxi license costs a fortune. It was considered a family asset. So when you sit in an Italian cab, most drivers will make you feel that you are visiting their home. They are doing you a favor to drive you around! Forget the fact that a taxi license (even by Italian law) is considered a permit to exercise a public service. You are totally in the hands of Signor Tassista, who may also be the rudest person on this Earth. The nice ones tell you all about politics or their family stories, but still – they’re charging you for this.

You pay the taxis in Beijing, too. It’s been a long time since I’ve used one, but in my day, Beijing cabs were a mess: bad driving in a city growing so fast that you had to constantly give the driver directions. (When I was there, they did not use GPS, but even if they did, the city was growing too fast to keep a GPS updated.) And on top of all this, you had to tolerate the intense smell of garlic. Or an overheated car. Or open windows. Or a smoking driver. Or a trunk full of the driver’s stuff – why did he keep his kid’s toys in there? The only good quality of the Beijing cabs was that they were plentiful and cheap. But forget about reading a book while riding a taxi in Beijing. You needed to have your eyes on the driver and on the road – Beijing cab drivers are drifters.

So when, on one late night, I sat in a black Uber, down at the NYU hospital, I was amazed. The driver did not ask me where we were going. The car just silently started to go while I was sitting deep in the leather seats of the Chevrolet Tahoe. No loud music, no driver talking, no questions about which way to go. I had just finished a difficult day, and I was able to be with my thoughts, undisturbed. The only thing that worried me was the driver, who sat a respectable distance from me, but who was fiddling with his smartphone on the passenger seat beside him. But the driver, whose face I never saw, read my mind and stopped doing it.

I got home completely relaxed. The smoothest taxi drive of my life. No talking money. No tip calculating and discussion. A perfect service. They are real pros, I said to my wife when she asked me how it went.

I became part of the Uber fan club: most of the cars are damn comfortable. I would never share that feeling of pleasure with other passengers. Do not get me wrong. One of my policies about Uber is that I only take it when I need a rest from the city – when I can’t stand to take another subway or chatty driver in a regular cab; when I do not have bike on me, or when I am tipsy, and so cannot drive my own car. It is when I need isolation from the city that an Uber car becomes a sort of decompression room.

Later on, as I started taking more Ubers, I still saw the pros, but also experienced their occasional cons. I had trouble negotiating some of my later trips. Once they charged me for a waiting Uber cab, despite the fact that I had canceled the trip. They can do that now – they have my credit card, app, and phone number. But why charge if a text message got lost in the universe? It happens all the time.

The other day, my driver missed the exit and we had to extend our voyage by 40 blocks. “Who is paying for this?” I asked the driver, but he skirted the issue. When the invoice came on my phone, I realized that I was paying. I wrote a short email to Uber customer service, and someone by the name of Yuka resolved the problem by going through the map attached to the bill, calculating the distance and time of the ride, and cutting my bill by one-third the price. It took three emails and an annoying marketing representative asking me if I was pleased with service, but the problem was resolved.

That left me with a lot of thoughts and curiosity about this avant-garde company, which has come to represent the fast-growing “gig economy.” Was it a gift to humanity or a trap – albeit with a cool and comfortable vibe?

What bothered me when I was initially charged for that sightseeing tour in Harlem at 2 a.m. was that the Uber driver and I were both equally stuck. We could not reset the contract or adjust the fee – there was no way to correct the financial impact of the driver’s mistake.

When I told a good friend the story about the missed turn and the difficulty in resolving the problem, he thought for a while. He then said that improving the app to enable it to negotiate these kinds of problems with the corporation would be a mistake. “They can’t do that – the driver cannot use his time to negotiate with the company via the app in order to resolve a problem. This is what you do in a traditional taxi. What Uber can do is predict this kind of situation and improve its service.”

My friend is smart. I realized that the unique feeling that Uber provides is “this is not your problem – just enjoy the ride.” It’s perfect service, a smooth, almost automated drive from beginning to end. That’s the vibe, whether real or not.

So coming home from my friend’s house, I started to read more about Uber, and I found this must-read piece written by Steven Greenhouse. But while Greenhouse points out all the serious questions about the old economy versus the new economy, and raises other questions about exploitation, social solidarity, unions, working rights and much more, my friend Greenhouse forgot to consider one very important factor in this story. That is me – the passenger, the end user. Greenhouse tells us the story of the company from the time of its inception six years ago. He writes about the brazenness of Uber founder Travis Kalanick, and about the creepy aspects of a company that is run by an app. The use of rude depersonalized terms like “deactivated” and “reactivated” instead of “fired” and “reemployed” must offend a sublime mind like Greenhouses. (This perversion of language, reminds me of the ridiculous use of the word “guest” instead of “customer” that the Japanese store Uniqlo uses here in Manhattan. “Next guest, please!” they call as you wait in line to pay for your purchase.) Did something get lost in translation?

However, Uber is not just a new model of a company. It is not just a company with a fresh design. Uber may be hip, but that’s not all it is. It is all that Greenhouse described and more. I would love to know more about how the drivers are selected, what standards Uber uses to choose their contract drivers. I will probably have to wait for a while, but I am tempted to try the experience of being an Uber driver myself. I only have to wait until my local DMV lets me count my driving experience from across three different continents towards an American driver’s license. Then I will take this job for a couple of days a week, probably for a limited period of time, just so that I can understand and explain how it really works.

However, there are already some reports from behind the scenes at Uber about what is happening in Uber’s “warehouse.” We all want to know where humanity is heading, right?  In his aforementioned piece, Greenhouse describes the economic reality of one driver:

In his first year, Billington grossed $1,500 to $2,000 a week, but now that has dwindled to $700 to $800 a week, he said. And that’s before the $120 he spends each week on gas, not to mention the cost of insurance, a weekly car wash, a monthly oil change, and depreciation on his Nissan Altima. The company’s minimum fare in L.A. is $4.65 for a two-mile ride, for instance—and out of that, Uber takes $1.65 for its “Safe Rides Fee” (covering its expenses for driver background safety checks and other safety features) and a 20 percent commission (60 cents) on the remaining $3.

“So Uber gets $2.25 for the ride, and the driver gets $2.40,” Billington says. “When you consider gas and other things I pay for, Uber is making more than me off the ride.” He scoffs at Uber’s assertion that its drivers are independent contractors, calling it “a load of nonsense.”

I also enjoyed the insider view that the Billfold provided by an anonymous writer who worked in Uber’s customer service department for nine months. And the Awl provides other insights through their podcast, in which three of their very talented editors (and Uber users) discuss the question of “Why do people hate Uber so much?” Go and grab it, they say – this is the way of the future. But I haven’t decided for myself.

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