“No one can complain they can’t find work,” an Uber driver in Cleveland said to me recently.
I lived and worked in New York City for the majority of the 90s and about 80% of the 2000s. If you were there during those years you can probably easily identify with the exasperating experience of hitting the street anywhere in Manhattan right around rush hour and seeing EVERY cab in the city with its “Off Duty” sign lit. The look of condescension and disdain on many cabbies face as they just flew right by you on their way to the daily switching of shifts that began right around 4 p.m. and ended right around 5:30 p.m. Rain or shine, cold or hot, beautifully dressed or in jeans…you were in the dumps.
Why did the Taxi and Limousine Commission pick THE busiest of times for the shift change and not 2 to 4 p.m., was a topic of conversation, head-scratching and enraged frustration for anyone who wanted, NEEDED a cab during rush hour? No one could ever say.
All I know is that when in 2010 or 2011 I visited the Bay Area and a friend told me about this new app where you could order a private Black Car to pick you up on demand and you didn’t have to even have a credit card on you—I was intrigued. From the first time I experienced this miracle – I was amazed and immediately smitten. Uber had me at “Where to?”
It took a bit of time for Uber to get to NYC—but when it finally did—oh boy, was I excited and grateful.
At that time I was having a serious bout of back issues, which basically prevented me from walking. So the mere fact that I could boot up the Uber app and order a Lincoln (this was before UberX) to pick me up where I was and take me anywhere I wanted to go with the tap of a screen…was not just miraculous but in some ways a life saver for me at that time. I was not dependent on anyone, to take me places, to wait and I was not limited by having to go to the street and find a Yellow Cab.
I remember the first time I arrived in a Suburban to meet a friend and his son for lunch on the Upper East Side, getting out of the car and then the car driving away, walking into the restaurant and my friend’s son asking me with amazement “Do you have a private driver???” something I’m sure he saw plenty of growing up in that part of town, but i was not the wealthy guy with a private driver…I was just a guy with an app. It was only a couple of months later that I noticed that Uber had adopted the slogan “Everyone’s Private Driver.”
So life changed dramatically in NYC and many many other places with the arrival of Uber. No longer dependent on begging looks at Yellow Cab drivers at 4:30 p.m., now snubbing OUR noses at them…and completely switching out those ungrateful service providers in our brand spanking new chauffeured Lincoln Blacks, Suburbans or Navigators. Wow! So I became a major evangelist. I told everyone I knew about this amazing app I was using and the smart, efficient, life-changing service I was having. And with the introduction of UberX and increased availability and flexibility?
2:30 a.m. in a suburb of London? No problem.
Going to some unrecognizable address in Tokyo? Easy.
No longer trying to figure out if the wait was 60 minutes or 2 hours in
Early wakeup call in Phoenix to go to the airport…forget the hotel limo!
Need a little style – there’s always an upgraded ride to take.
Waiting for the ride or for someone? Just see where they are or notify!
And of course…let’s not forget the ULTIMATE inconvenience: having CASH on hand to pay the fare. How many times in the days of taxi-dependency did I get caught in the middle of the night without cash desperately looking for an ATM? And even today believe it or not there are still places in the world (yes, in Europe) where cabbies take ONLY cash. Good luck finding one that takes cards! And what about the annoyance and discomfort of paying the tip?
For us, the multitudes of passengers, Uber meant you didn’t have to speak with the driver if you didn’t want to. Or if you couldn’t because you don’t know Portuguese or Italian and don’t want to have to fumble for translation. Uber meant you could just get in and hop out. Ratings made it relatively safe, seamless payment made it safer…let’s face it: the PERFECT use of mobile technology.
But now that we have (nearly) forgotten the indignities of the “Taxi Days” and Uber is a part of our lives, it reminds me of our awareness of the miracle of the mobile phone or air travel. There are moments when I marvel at the sheer incredibility of it all, and how many aspects of these things were just plain unimaginable 20 years ago. Like a sort of mindfulness of wonder… And then just as quickly any great innovation that becomes part of our lives – I immediately go back to taking it for granted…
But what I DON’T think can be taken for granted at any point is the enormous impact companies like Uber—but Uber more than any other—so I call it the Uber Revolution, have had on the lives of ordinary people everywhere from the employment POV.
I have had so many conversations with Uber drivers over the years that it’s hard to count. And there have been so many facets of those conversations…I actually thought of writing a book called “Conversations with Uber (drivers)!!”
These conversations have ranged from the philosophical, to the political, to the global, to economics to the human condition. One conversation I had with a driver in California, a young immigrant who had no one to talk to about his relationship struggles with his girlfriend, so deep the conversation went that by the end of the ride, he switched off the engine, and we talked for 30 minutes what he should do…Of course, like every Uber conversation and every Uber ride, that encounter was fleeting, almost spiritual (yes, I said that), where you share an intimate space with someone – connect or not – but then never see or hear from this human again. But as profound, strange and interesting some of these fleeting human connections are – the conversations I have had with drivers about livelihood, about the relationship between what their work life was prior to Uber and after have been the most moving and inspiring to me.
Let’s face it, most people who drive for Uber don’t do it because they are looking for self-discovery or an existential experience. They drive because they need to. And nonetheless, in numerous conversations that I’ve had, I discovered in many cases (and not just at the beginning, but even recently) the awareness and the profound recognition of the power that Uber has brought to their life. As many have said, for the first time in their lives they have felt freedom. Yes. Freedom. The knowledge that they don’t have to cower down to make a living—all they need to do is own a car, a mobile phone and the app and they can go anywhere and live without any dependency on handouts or welfare or unemployment. People can cross the country with their car and arrive at a town they’ve never lived in before and immediately start working…immediately feel the independence that comes from the empowerment of making a decent, honest living in some sort of service. My driver riding from the airport in Madrid a few weeks ago told me how he had moved from Italy to Barcelona and now to Madrid to see what it would be like to live there. He really loved it and found his place in the world, and he looked at me through the rear-view mirror and said: “All thanks to Uber.”
So Uber is not a global transportation revolution, which of course, it is. It’s not just a convenience revolution, which it is. What Uber really is to me is a Social Revolution—a real socialist revolution—where people never have to want, never have to suffer working for a terrible boss, never have to stoop, a revolution where everyone can always provide, hit the road to discover new places, meet new people, and always have the freedom and security of knowing the most important thing: that they can work.