Last Sunday Maria, Justin, my two toddler granddaughters and I flew into Los Angeles from Columbus.
Our 7 ½ hour cross-county flight was fine. Our 10-minute taxi ride home from the airport was dreadful. (See post from 12/30/2014). Our driver was rude, drove like a crazy jerk, was minimally helpful with all our luggage and baby-gear and complained of the money he would lose on us because ours was too short a trip and we were paying by credit card.
Motivated by a guilt-tinged desire for conciliation mixed with a vague message from my over-active imagination that this guy who now knew where my family members lived could be an operative for a taxi company run by the Russian mob, I left this nematode taxi driver a $10 tip on a $20 fare and hoped he’d stay away.
This afternoon I left Los Angeles for Portland, Oregon to visit my sister Romaine. My daughter Maria called an Uber car from her smartphone to take me from her house to the airport.
For the uninitiated, Uber is a car service that resembles a taxi company in that it involves the dispatching of vehicles which for a fee transport people from one point to another. One establishes an account with the Uber network then beckons a car via a smartphone app. When one orders an Uber one is informed of the price, which fluctuates according to the demand at the moment, and how many minutes away the nearest Uber car is. The cars are privately owned. Payment is made in advance online when the car is ordered so there is no paying the driver and there is no tipping involved.
When my daughter ordered my Uber she was informed that it would arrive in seven minutes and precisely seven minutes later my ride pulled up, a spacious Ford Flex.
My driver was middle-aged, neatly dressed in business-casual and was helpful, courteous and friendly from the start. When I asked him how his day was going he said very well and asked me how mine was going.
He said he hoped I’d given myself plenty of time to get the airport as he’d been driving back and forth all morning and the airport was crowded and traffic was slow.
He was right about the traffic. Maria and Justin live close to the airport but this time the usual 10-minute trip took almost 25 minutes.
The driver and I chatted away the time. He told me that he was originally from Buenos Aires, Argentina, but that he’d lived in Orange County for the past 34 years. He has two grown children, a son who is a software engineer in Los Angeles and a daughter who just received her journalism degree from NYU and now lives in Brooklyn. My driver and his wife recently moved from Orange County to Torrence, close to where his son lives. He’s been an Uber driver for a month and a half. When I asked him if he’d driven a taxi previously he laughed and said, “No, I never drove for a living before.”
Not wishing to pry too much I didn’t ask him what he did before he was an Uber driver but when I asked him how he liked driving he smiled and said, “It’s pretty good work.”
I did ask him some questions about Uber, though, which he was glad to answer. I learned from him that the Uber company receives ride requests from a smartphone app then sends each request out to a nearby driver. Uber drivers use their own cars and can drive as much or as little as they feel like. They receive 80% of every fare and Uber receives the rest. “It’s pretty good money,” said my driver.
At one point while stuck in the airport traffic I glanced at my watch and felt a stab of anxiety. I believe I started unconsciously twisting my purse strap.
“I hope I make it on time,” I muttered distractedly.
“Here,” said my driver, proffering me a container of candy that he pulled from the compartment between the seats, “have a chocolate? Or a mint?”
I was touched and amazed by a driver who kept candy on hand to calm nervous passengers. I declined his offer, though.
“How about a bottle of water," he then offered, "I have some in the back.”
I thanked him profusely but again declined.
He asked me about my visit to Los Angeles, my children, and how driving in Columbus compares to driving in Los Angeles. I told him that in spite of the greater volume of traffic I found Los Angeles drivers as nice as Columbus drivers, unlike drivers in Chicago and New York.
He laughed again and told me that the drivers in Buenos Aires were the worst in the world.
Finally we arrived at my terminal where my driver unloaded my luggage and hauled it up to the sidewalk for me. The ride cost $14. (A few weeks ago when Maria’s family flew from Los Angeles to Columbus for Christmas her Uber ride to the LA airport cost $8).
I offered my driver a $5 tip but he refused, telling me that tipping wasn’t at all necessary.
But I insisted and told him to go have a Starbucks on me.
Once again he laughed and accepted my gift of a coffee.
So those are my two ride experiences, one in a taxi, one in an Uber car.
I know that as of right now Uber is under fire. According to Wikipedia:
“Uber is the subject of ongoing protests from taxi drivers, taxi companies and governments who believe that it is an illegal taxi cab operaation that engages in unfair business practices and compromises passenger safety. As of December 2014, protests had been staged in Germany, India, Spain, France, and England, among other nations, while incidents involving passengers have been documented. In December 2014, Uber was banned in Spain, and two cities in India, and continues to be involved in disputes with several governmental bodies, including those of the U.S. and Australia”.
As for me, I’m thinking of buying myself a smartphone.