If you live in San Francisco, you’ve definitely heard about ride-sharing, the new-actually-not-that-new trend in start-ups “disrupting transportation” and using any individual with a car and an iPhone as a personal car service for any other person with a credit card and an iPhone. In the city there are at least three schools of thought when it comes to ride-sharing:
One: THIS IS THE BEST THING THAT’S EVER HAPPENED TO SF OMG FREAK OUT. This is the opinion held by techie early adopter-types who call anyone with any sort of negative feelings about tech taking over our lives “luddites.” They are usually wearing Google Glass or wish they were wearing it.
Two: Ride-sharing is destroying the fabric of the city. It is taking business away from the more democratic taxi system, which legitimately employs a bunch of people, not white, not rich people. Anyone can use taxis and they’ve been around forever so you shouldn’t mess with them because CHANGE IS SCARY IT DOESN’T MATTER HOW BADLY THEY FUNCTION. This is the opinion often held by more political types who call in to talk radio shows.
Three: I don’t really have time to care about ride-sharing and disrupting things and the fabric of the community or whatever, but that pink mustache is really embarrassing. This is the opinion held by mostly everyone else.
Up until last Thursday, I was solidly in the absolutely don’t care but COME ON WITH THE PINK MUSTACHES camp. If I thought about Lyft and its ride-sharing brethren like Uber and Sidecar, which to be clear, I rarely did, I could see both sides of the equation: yeah, it’s pretty cool that I can get whatever I want for an okay price, whenever I “need” it here in San Francisco, since I am an employed, single, middle class girl with no kids, but also, what about everyone else? Things getting easier and smoother for me always means things get a little harder for someone else, somewhere. Whether it’s the Chinese laborers making my iPhone or the low-income kid who has to deal with less frequent bus service because not as many people are taking buses anymore, I care about the price of my actions, even if I don’t always do anything about it besides feel guilty.
And then: last Thursday. At 4:15 I called a cab to pick me up at work and take me to BART where, in my perfectly worked out world, I would get on a train headed for the airport, get on my plane which left at 6:20 and land in Portland, Oregon for a dream 2 day summer vacation. At 4:30, my cab had not yet arrived. I called another company and they said it would be at least 20 minutes before they could get me a cab. The first company sent me a robocall saying they couldn’t actually pick me up, sorry, not sorry. I felt a little panicky. Clearly at this point I would be taking a cab the whole way to the airport, if not the whole way to Oregon. I really didn’t want to miss my flight. So standing on the sidewalk outside of work, I found Lyft on the app store and downloaded it. Six minutes later, a really nice woman with CANDY picked me up.
There are good and bad things about Lyft, in terms of the actual experience of riding it, even taking politics out of the equation. Candy, for one, is always good. My driver was really nice and didn’t seem bothered by my insistent questions about how much she actually made and how the taxes would work out at the end of the year. Also, because we were going to the airport and she didn’t want to get harassed, she took the pink mustache off, which meant I didn’t have to deal with that humiliation. Also, the cost was reasonable. On the other hand, if you don’t like talking to people, this isn’t the ride you want to take. And my driver did say something so insanely politically incorrect I was surprised speechless. That, mixed with the amount people probably do get paid (enough but still not enough) and the looming tax question that I am still not sure about (if someone is making a tax-free living wage right now, what happens when they are taxed?), made me think that the system is still built on a basic inequality and that the drivers are not hipster kids on a lark from SF who were raised in obnoxious enclaves with PC police but working class people from the Bay who are trying to feed families, just like most taxi drivers.
After I got dropped off at the airport and paid my reasonable fare and made it to my gate in time to change into shorts for summer in Portland, I took stock of my first Lyft ride. Though it might seem strange and remotely “disruptive” right now, Lyft isn’t all that different from a taxi company and might be the future of the industry. It’s convenient and personal and I actually got a timely, affordable ride in one, which no taxi company in SF seemed able to provide for me on a Thursday afternoon for any price. The accountability of both rider and driver feels safe. The not feeling guilty about not having cash is great. But a couple things will have to change if Lyft and its pals are going to replace taxis throughout the country: they are going to have to make sure they are sustainable career for their drivers and not just a quick cheap solution for the people who they drive around. And they are seriously going to have to get rid of the horrible pink mustache.