The other afternoon, I pushed a button and summoned a human being driving a Toyota to my apartment building. It’s the kind of miracle we take for granted in this science-fictional universe we now live in, but when I arrived in San Francisco from Brooklyn three years ago, I had never done such a thing—there was always a cab to be hailed or a car service to be phoned that was never more than five minutes from my door. A ride-sharing app on my iPhone seemed unnecessary.
And now, I have no idea how I’d live without it.
It’s weird to think how relatively new the idea of ride sharing is, since it’s become a pervasive part of our lives—particularly in San Francisco, land of the smartphone zombies. Back in 2011, Uber was a high-end black-car service whose rides cost about 1.5 times as much as a taxi did; in 2013, Uber—by virtue of the Uber X option in which regular folks became drivers—cut its prices below those of local taxis.
Sam only drives for Lyft these days. He’s given up driving for Uber. When I asked him why, he began by telling me the nickname he’s bestowed upon Travis Kalanick’s stumbling empire. “I call ’em Screwber,” he said.
When I got to San Francisco, I starting using either Uber or an alternative app called Sidecar, since it was the only one that provided a flat fare for the rides you took; in the ensuing years, Sidecar devolved from a ride-sharing platform into a delivery platform, and then it just quietly went out of business altogether. Uber, as is its goal, had strangled one of its primary San Francisco competitors to death.
Back in 2014, I also never took Lyft, since it apparently required riders to sit in the front seat and engage in some sort of chummy fist-bump, which may have very well wound up with me getting arrested for assault. But on this particular afternoon last week—as is more often the case than not these days—I summoned a Lyft rather than an Uber. (It was a Lyft Line pool ride, which is more proof of how I’ve evolved on this front—I would never have voluntarily shared a New York City cab ride with a stranger. But as a writer without a car who is attempting to scrape out a living in one of the world’s most expensive cities, I do it all the time now.)
I’d had issues with Uber for quite some time, but the past few weeks of missteps and fuck-ups by the company and its CEO, Travis Kalanick, had convinced me to avoid Uber as much as possible—and I will admit, just writing that sentence has me afraid of a backlash from some overzealous company employee with access to my account.
And perhaps not surprisingly, my driver on this particular afternoon agreed with my anti-Uber stance.
Let’s call him Sam. He lives in San Bruno, which is down by the San Francisco airport. Like a lot of drivers and other tech-adjacent folk, he can’t afford to live in this radically overpriced city, so he commutes here to drive, with the hope of picking up an airport ride at the end of his shift so he can make some extra cash while heading home. (I’ve had a few drivers who told me they commute into the city from places like Sacramento, which is over an hour away; one of them said he crashes on a friend’s couch overnight—or sometimes in his car—so he can get up and do his shift in the city the following day.)
Sam is an older man with a fantastically snowy mustache and a full head of hair and a colorful vocabulary. Sam only drives for Lyft these days. He’s given up driving for Uber. When I asked him why, he began by telling me the nickname he’s bestowed upon Kalanick’s stumbling empire.
“I call ’em Screwber,” he said.
Nobody seems to dig Uber very much at the moment, in large part because of Kalanick, who can’t seem to get out of his own way. First, he agreed to be on Donald Trump’s business advisory council, seemingly unaware that Uber is a largely urban company that serves a largely Democratic audience of Trump-haters. Then Uber appeared to take advantage of Trump’s original travel ban by turning off surge pricing at JFK Airport.
Then a former female employee wrote a scathing blog post that accused the company of harboring a culture riddled with misogyny. And then an Uber black car driver named Fawzi Kamel released a video of an argument he had with Kalanick, in which the driver lamented his diminishing salary, and Kalanick responded with an argument straight out of the Ayn Rand playbook.
“Some people don’t like to take responsibility for their own shit,” Kalanick said, before vacating Kamel’s vehicle with a pair of female companions.
Kamel claimed to have lost nearly $100,000 in revenue due to Uber’s price drops over the past six years. That may have been overstated, but Kamel’s larger point was completely valid. And as someone who relies on car shares to get pretty much everywhere San Francisco’s limited public-transportation system can’t take me, I’ve watched it unfold in real time.
Here’s what’s so crazy: Back when I would take Sidecar rides from place to place in 2014, I’d often pay, say, 10 to 12 dollars. Then I started taking shared rides, and they got cheaper and cheaper, to the point that now I’ll often pay well under five bucks for a ride. The other day, I was in an UberX for 38 minutes, heading from one end of town to the other. Granted, we picked up and dropped off two other people on the way, but it cost me exactly $3.99.
My Lyft driver, Sam, told me he that when he worked for Uber, he could often take a passenger on a long ride, cresting several massive San Francisco hills and depleting his gas tank, only to find he’d netted something like $2.50 after Uber took its cut. Sam works 12-hour days, 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., on Tuesdays and Wednesdays and Thursdays, in addition to shorter shifts on Monday (and sometimes on Saturday), but at some point, he decided driving for Uber just wasn’t worth it anymore.
I’ve had a few other Lyft drivers tell me the same thing in recent months. In fact, Sam is worried, now that Lyft has begun to catch up to Uber, that Lyft will begin to undercut prices and driver bonuses in the same way. And there are tons of stories on the UberPeople drivers forum that essentially back up those stories about Uber.
So how does any ride-sharing company make money by continually charging less and less, and squeezing employees who are already regarded as independent contractors instead of employees?
Maybe the answer is: You don’t.
That’s why Uber suddenly appears to be in some trouble. And why the whole ride-sharing model itself is now in question: As transportation industry expert Hubert Horan wrote on the blog Naked Capitalism, Uber is bleeding more cash than any start-up in history. And this may not be like the case of, say, Amazon cutting prices until it achieves profitability. “If rapid growth could not drive major margin improvements between 2012 and 2016,” Horan wrote, “there is no reason to believe that Uber will suddenly find billions in scale economies going forward.”
What’s Uber’s best bet to become profitable? Maybe it’s self-driving cars, which still seem a long way away, given the company’s failed experiments to date. But then, how weird is it to develop a service whose ultimate goal is to get rid of the people that are its backbone? And even in this area, Uber can’t seem to keep out of trouble—in late February, Google’s automated-car subsidiary, Waymo, sued Uber, claiming patent infringement and theft of trade secrets.
Kalanick said last week that he’s going to attempt to remedy the company’s issues by hiring a chief operating officer. Is it too late? I don’t know, but in the meantime, if I have to pay an extra couple dollars for a ride across town—and know that money goes largely into the pockets of the drivers who are doing the bulk of the work—I’d find a way to live with it. It’s still cheaper and more convenient (at least for me) than actually owning a car.
And maybe this is where the problem lies—not with the ride-sharing model, but with the company that continually tries to take advantage of everyone who’s grown dependent upon it. Maybe that’s what Kalanick and Uber have been overlooking all these years, and maybe that’s why they’re ultimately doomed to failure.
Maybe there’s something to be said, in a world that’s growing increasingly automated, for a little bit of understanding of the actual human beings driving those cars.