My first ride with Uber

I was on a tram to the airport, when we stopped between stations. "Apologies statics statics statics problem on the line..." Good thing I planned 30 minutes margins I told myself. The train remained immobile for twenty minutes before we moved again. When we stopped in the following station, still far away from the airport, the crackling voice told us we were "likely to stop again between stations for an arbitrary amount of time". I jumped out of the train, ran to the nearest road and hopped into the first taxi.

That's the only kind of emergency where I ride a cab. I'm quite poor, but not cheap enough to waste a plane ticket over 20 Euros cab fare.

So, I don't ride with taxis often. I've never ordered one over the phone or the internet. I'm thoroughly confused by the rabble over Uber, wondering why people don't just ride a freaking bike. Or take a bus. Or walk.

But yesterday, it was raining, and there were four of us, and we needed to be somewhere, and the others wanted to get a cab, and I was the only speaker of the local language. "You get us a taxi". I agreed, but didn't know what to do next. Well, if I'm ever going to try Uber, this is it.

Setting Uber up

I went on the Play store and searched for "uber". The top result was an app called "Uber" made by "Uber Technologies Inc". I like when things make sense. It downloads and installs. I open the thing and it suggests I create an account. Wow, this is exactly what I had expected. I tap the "connect with facebook" button, which produces no results. This gets me my first frown. Many more are waiting in line.

Like the good old days before Facebook Connect, I enter the few fields with my name, phone number, email and, since the "pay with paypal" button produces no results (another frown), my bank card number. And that's it, I guess. Time to get our first Uber ride!

The app has correctly located us on the map. It displays a very inviting "Set pickup location" on top of it, and I naturally think that's where I'm supposed to tap next. But I don't, because I notice a small "1-2 people" at the bottom right. There's four of us so that's enough to stop me. Then I see a slider that lets me pick between "Uber pool", "Uber X", "Uber Black" and Uber Van".

WTF?

So, "pool" is probably where you share rides. Thus the "1-2 people" limitation. So we definitely need one of the others. My deductive powers are defeated then. Do we need a van, because there's four of us? What's the deal with the "X"? God I hope it's not what I think it is... Same thought about the "Black". No "what is this" button. No "take a tour" option in sight. And it's not like I can experiment. What if I accidentally order a hooker or a racially segregated pickup service? So I open a web browser and type in "How to use Uber".

The ride

I have a lot of fun watching our ride arrive on the map. Though there must be significant lag, because we get out of the building as they are still 20m away on my screen, but IRL, they're already waiting for us.

"Hi, are you Uber?"

He's a 30ish, casually dressed Arab guy in a classy black French sedan. He's gesturing me to get in.

"There's four of us, is that OK?"

The app hadn't requested how many people the ride was for, and I had been worrying that a car without enough seats would show up.

"No problem, get in. Where are you going?"

"Yeah, sorry about that. The app asked me to set a destination, but the keyboard didn't appear so I couldn't type it in."

"That's no problem, I'll do it."

"Sorry I'm a bit confused. It's my first time."

That got him started. He loves Uber. He drives people around from dawn to dusk. "It's, like, your job then?" He ponders that for a second before replying that, yes, you could say that.

He drives very well, which is not to be expected in the town we're in. He's also very amiable. When he figures we're not locals, he starts pointing at touristic landmarks we're driving past. We step out at a red light. "Anything we need to do before leaving?" No, you just leave. Uber has my card number, so the payment will probably happen automatically. As expected.

For the following 30 minutes, I check my phone compulsively, waiting for a payment notification from my bank or the Uber app. I'm a bit anxious to discover how much I'll be charged. Just like "register with facebook" and "pay with Paypal" buttons, the "get an estimate" button didn't do anything on the Uber app. So I was completely in the dark on how much I'd be charged. My bank won. By a large margin. Uber never notified me about how much they had helped themselves to my account.

The good, the bad and the ugly

Well, I think you've guessed already that I'm very unimpressed by the app, the UI, UX... the part where you're not in someone else's car, on your way to point B. Considering how much resources Uber is spending on moonshot project, downright evil lobbying and legal friction, you'd expect their software team to be competent enough to produce a non-buggy ("enter your destination" and no keyboard? Really?) and non-confusing app, that doesn't assume you already know their jargon.

I am, however, very satisfied with our driver. I can't remember an actual-taxi driver ever being so nice. I got him talking, and he did mention that they get pushed around by the provider if their ratings fall below 4.5 stars. So I'm not really surprised how nice the guy was. Requiring that your users rate that high feels pretty abusive to me, but I'd need to actually be a Uber driver to know whether that's true or not. The guy did seem very happy driving Uber users all day, so it can't be too bad.

The price I was charged for the service was a lot higher than I expected. It was higher than an actual-taxi would have cost us. This confuses the hell out of me. I thought the whole point was that it was cheap. I thought the idea was that the taxi business was overpriced and monopolistic and ripe for disruption. The kind of situation where the challenger manages to cost half or less compared to legacy. I've read articles claiming Uber could replace the public transportation network when enough people ride together. Well there were four of us, and it cost us twice the price of four bus tickets. Will I ever use it again? Hell no! Or only when all else fails. Like I've always done with actual-taxis.

That was the bad, here comes the ugly: Uber takes a 20% cut on every ride. That's just wow. You've got those startup kids in San Francisco, I assume, who maintain servers and update code on an app and only require that 20% of a whole economy be paid to them for the service of maintaining those servers and updating code in an app. That's like, millions of Euros an hour. And their app sucks! I'm totally speechless. I get it that the cost of service must be quite high before said service scales globally and marginal costs of operation are far from leaning towards zero. But once the business has scaled and the marginal costs of operation do lean towards zero, then the cut they take on each transaction should follow suit (lean towards zero). Keeping it at startup level is downright mafiaish.

And then you zoom in to individual drivers and things get even uglier. Our guy does it all day, everyday. It's his job, see. Now, I could get all worked up over job security and regulations and all the stuff people get all worked up over, except I don't really care about job security and regulations so I'll leave it to them. What I'm all worked up over is that there are those who drive, and those who get driven. The idea behind the service sounds like hitchhiking_2.0. When you drive somewhere, you pick up people that are going there and it helps with the gas. When you're on foot, you hop on into someone else's car and chip in. It raises car occupancy, get people mingling, and removes the need for taxi drivers cruising around town looking for customers, adding to the traffic. But in the end, it creates a freaking class system, where the drivers "work" and sit in their car waiting for customers.

And it's more expensive than regular cabs.

So, now, I'm even more confused. Why don't people just ride bike, the bus, walk OR take an actual-taxi?

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