Welcome to Uber Nation

“Thanks for the ride,” we tell Eric as we hop out of his robin egg blue Hyundai.  To be clear, Eric isn’t a long lost friend – we’ve only known him for 15 minutes and 16 seconds – the time it took to get from LA’s Union Station to our friend Patrick’s home in Silverlake.  Eric drives for Uber, and we’ve just finished our first trip with the controversial car service.

“Welcome to Uber Nation,” Eric exclaims as we take off.

 I had now joined a growing citizenry participating in the ride-sharing revolution.  With a tap on my phone’s screen, I climbed in a stranger’s car and turned a middle finger to the archaic system that is the taxi cartel.

Don’t get me wrong – I have nothing against cabbies. They work hard for a living. I just think their employers and money hungry civic governments who hand out taxi licenses are trying to prop up a broken system designed to leave passengers waiting for expensive rides in often broken down, clunky, and unkempt cars and mini-vans.

By contrast, Eric’s Hyundai was spotless on the inside. A playlist of pop hits played in the background (although with certain Uber cars, Spotify integration could allow me to choose the music).  As we careened down the freeway to Silverlake, we talked everything Uber – the acceptance, the backlash, the future, and his surprise that in the small prairie city I’m from, there were no Uber drivers.

“You’re Uber virgins,” he says with a cheeky grin. We are. And he just popped our ride-sharing cherry.

Uber may be the lightning rod everyone is talking about, but in Los Angeles there’s competition.

 Lyft is a nearly identical service – whose drivers are denoted by hot pink promotional accoutrement inside their vehicles – from glowing moustaches which sit in the windshield to water bottles soaked in the company’s trademark colour.  Our friend Patrick prefers Lyft. He says the drivers are friendlier, the cars are often nicer, and the conversation is more interesting.  As we leave his house, he messages me a promotional code to use to download the app – it gives us some free and discounted rides, and he gets a kickback of credits in to his account. (It’s clear rides aren’t the only thing getting shared – these companies like rewarding loyal customers.)

Our next ride-sharing opportunity comes when we’ve had our fill of the Santa Monica Pier, and decide to get that most desirable of west coast delicacies – In-N-Out Burger.  The map tells us the nearest location is in Culver City, so I whip out the Lyft app and order a car.

Within 4 minutes, a black Toyota Prius pulls up across the street. I check the license plate and it matches the one listed in the app.  The driver, Jacin, is a chill dude with a slight frame and a lean face.  He welcomes us in to his ride and tells us he’s envious of our dinner plan. He’s two days in to a juice cleanse and would kill for a burger right now. (I now know why Patrick says the conversation is more interesting!)

As we weave through the streets of Santa Monica, we quickly learn Jacin knows a bit about where we are from. He was in Canada – and Saskatchewan – just a couple years ago. It turns out he’s a musician, and – more specifically – he plays guitar for Ricky Martin. (Yes. That Ricky Martin. Before you call hoax, I wouldn’t be sharing this detail if I didn’t fact check it. He’s the real deal – LinkedIn, Facebook and his own website confirm that the guy behind the wheel was indeed the same guy playing guitar – or at least one hell of a doppelgänger.)

We push through the trendy Abbott-Kinney strip in Venice as Jacin tells us he’s excited to get back on tour soon – but even more eager to go visit his son in Florida before heading out on the road. It’s in moment that I realize we are getting more than a ride. We are making a personal connection – not unlike making a new friend on Twitter or Facebook. This is a unique form of social networking, and it’s taking place in a sanctuary so personal as someone’s car.

Jacin is so engaged in the conversation, we end up zipping past the In-N-Out burger. We don’t mind – this has been an interesting ride. He quickly takes the next turn and gets us dropped off.  We say goodbye – and in a way it kinda sucks that our trip is over.  Jacin was fascinating, and the conversation was stimulating.

 

Chris lords over our haul at In-N-Out Burger.

As we watch the tail lights of the Prius get smaller, my phone buzzes. The Lyft app opens up and gives us the final tally.

Total ride time – 19 minutes.  Distance traveled – 4.2 miles. Cost $9.51. The app gives me a $5 discount because it’s our first ride. I give Jacin a $2 tip and a 5 star rating. With a tap on the screen, about $8 is charged to my Visa – way less than what we would have paid a cabbie, and a much more interesting experience.

Napster changed the rules for music. Amazon has forced bricks and mortar retailers to rethink their business plans. Whether taxi companies and city governments like it, Lyft and Uber are responding to a consumer need, want and desire. And in the end – the customer is always right.

On our last day in LA, I open my phone up and request another Uber (there are no Lyft drivers nearby.)  A car two blocks away lights up on the app, and is in front of us in just over a minute. This is a quieter ride, with less conversation. But that’s okay – it gives me time to think.

Los Angeles is a terribly frustrating city to navigate – especially without a car of your own.  Yet, since logging on to the ride sharing apps, it feels more accessible.  It is easier to get around and explore.  It’s sad to think about boarding a flight back to a land without such seamless transport options.

Eric may have welcomed us to “Uber Nation” – but for now, I’ll have to settle for being an Uber ex-pat, and wait for the revolution to arrive in my backyard.

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