The Problems with Lyft, Uber, and the Rest of Them
Note: This article originally appeared on App360 in February 2014. When it was first published Flywheel had just been announced and I didn’t know it was strictly for cab drivers.
I don’t recall what ridesharing service it was. It could’ve been Lyft, Uber, Flywheel, Side Car, or Aladdin’s magic carpet. I don’t remember. Given the amount of startups in San Francisco, The City’s populace has become lab rats for the testing of every new app on the market. These days, transit alternatives abound and I’ve used all of them. So who it was doesn’t really matter. What matters is that when we got into the car and said, “We’re going to the Clift Hotel,” our driver responded with, “Where is that?”
The Clift is one of San Francisco’s most well known hotels. Celebrities stay there, fancy parties happen there, and its bar, the Redwood Room, is famous as a place to meet high end prostitutes. It’s a San Francisco institution and the UberFlyLyftCar driver had never heard of it. I mistakenly told him the Clift was on Geary and Mason (instead of Geary and Taylor) and he plugged it into his GPS as Geary and Masonic. If I hadn’t known where I was going and redirected the driver, he would’ve dropped us off at Trader Joe’s. That said, TJ’s spicy black bean dip is rather delicious.
A few years ago I was invited to some press dealie for a company that I’d never heard of called Lyft. I get invited to these things all the time and more often than not I just go for the free booze and food. Walking out of Lyft headquarters that day, I was legitimately impressed, and said to some friends of mine, “This could really change everything!” Not only would this new ridesharing alterative be more reliable than calling and then waiting for a cab, it would also get more drivers out on the streets. Plus Lyft claimed to be a bit cheaper than cabs and way cheaper than Uber, which was only doing black car service at the time.
San Francisco was in desperate need of better transit options. I showed up an hour and a half late to my own 30th birthday party because it was raining and no cab would come out to pick me up. The explosion of rideshare options in the past few years has at least made it so that no one ends up late to a birthday where they shamefully end up passing out at the bar and puking in a gutter (I stupidly figured I had to play an hour and a half of catch-up).
But one downside of ridesharing apps is that San Francisco is now full of drivers who don’t know anything about The City and can’t get anywhere without GPS – or sometimes even with one. I once had a Lyft driver’s GPS try to take me to the Inner Richmond by way of the Bay Bridge! For those unfamiliar with San Francisco, this means his GPS was trying to take me to Oakland, which is another city, across a large body of water. But cabbie knowledge goes beyond basic geography to include street knowledge that apps can’t match. Another downside is that with motorists coming from as far as LA to drive for rideshares in SF, The City’s traffic is worse than ever.
To be fair, I’ve also had cab drivers who don’t know The City well, but more often than not, they’ve just ended up in town when they dropped someone else off from the airport or another part of the Bay. To become an SF cab driver, you have to take classes during which you learn your way around, and ultimately you take a test to prove that you’re up to snuff and can tell Valencia from Vallejo. Plus there’s the actual on-the-ground knowledge that comes from running in the streets for years.
Cab drivers know back ways and traffic patterns that no GPS has been able to master. And then there are the actual street smarts. Cabbies are the eyes and ears of a city at all hours of the day. They know where the best cheap eats are, what bars are popular on any given night, and what neighborhoods to avoid. They see it all. They know the ebb and flow of a city the way a boat captain knows waterways, all without looking at an app.
There are a lot of other, more tangible, benefits to taxis as well: roughly 90% of all SF taxis are hybrid or fueled with compressed natural gas (CNG), revenue from the permits cabbies purchase helps fund The City’s transport infrastructure (think roads and sidewalks), and driving a cab is a good way for recent immigrants to start earning an honest and decent living for their families – you can’t be UberFlyLyftCar driver if you can’t afford a car. These awesome benefits are important not only to keeping San Francisco alive, but also making it the great place that it is. The question is, though: how much does all this outweigh the convenience of ordering an UberFlyLyftCar and knowing that it will actually show up and (maybe) get you to wherever you need to go, on time? Some cab drivers are asking themselves this same question and have actually left traditional taxi services to become UberFlyLyftCar drivers.
A little while ago, I was in New Orleans, visiting some friends and just frolicking in one of my favorite cities in the world. My girlfriend was also in town for business. After a long day of working and a long night of New Orleans-ing, she didn’t feel well and wanted to catch a cab back to the hotel. As we were out in the Bywater, cabs were scarce, so we called a cab company. We got a lot a sass from the dispatcher and ultimately had to call three or four times over the space of 45 minutes before a cab actually showed up.
When the cab finally stopped in front of us, I said to my lady friend, “I think Lyft launches in New Orleans this year. These cab companies are gonna wish they were a whole lot nicer. They have no idea what’s coming for them.”
Lack of innovation destroyed the Detroit auto industry. The cats at the top in Detroit felt that, since they had a stranglehold on the industry, there was no reason to innovate. They figured they could continue to make bad cars and that people would continue to buy them because they always had. Then one day companies like Toyota and Honda showed up with cars that were reliable and affordable and blew Detroit out of the water. The same kind of complacency among cab companies helped UberFlyLyftCar upend the transit industry in San Francisco. If cabbies don’t respond, these companies will expand their takeover to New Orleans and beyond.
Although things are starting to turn around for them now, it’s taken Detroit car companies decades to admit that arrogance and short sightedness was the cause of their own ruin. How many UberFlyLyftCar companies will have to exist before traditional cab companies realize the same thing? Or will city and state governments take the needed measures to regulate these companies in the same way cab companies are regulated? I guess we will find out.