Public vs Private

On Uber, Lyft, Sidecar, and the insistence that private options are safe, progressive, and good for drivers. They’re not. Yet.


Ever since Uber launched, it’s been heavily criticized. Mostly by State Public Utility Commissions, govt officials behind the PUCs, and angry cabbies. Career cabbies being put out of work by on-call limo drivers, I wasn’t happy about. Uber quickly adapted to include cabbies with their Uber Taxi service however, and that made me feel some optimism in the ethical direction this new kind of on-demand service was headed.

The great promise of tech as I’ve observed throughout my life, has been to solve problems previously un-solvable or systemically too cumbersome to make better, with analog resources. The Taxi problem, I felt was a great one to tackle with digital solutions—all of which are most recently monikered as Transit Network Companies.

The PUCs whining after Uber and Flywheel became inclusive to cab drivers (and the SF-MTA’s expensive PR campaign against the TNCs), I felt had no merit. Mostly, because the TNC drivers are insured and do have their Chauffeur’s licenses. Moreso, because it’s been rare that I’ve ever had an SF cabbie who’s been polite, driven safely, not been gabbing on their phone the whole time, or an SF taxi dispatcher get me a car in less than 30min (or not hang-up on me, offer a way-off ETA, etc). Not to mention I have to actually pick-up a phone to call the dispatcher—who may not answer for a while—taxis frequently split if they have to wait more than a minute, etc…

So as the consumer, I gotta ask: what value do I get from the SF-MTA?

Forget that I’m a taxpayer, and look at me as I see myself when soliciting a cab: as a consumer. Brag all you want on those posters about the safety & regulatory assurances—accountability to some government office whose systems are opaque to me—but as the customer, I ain’t seeing that value. As a cyclist and as a fellow driver on the road, it’s also been my observation that SF cabbies are some of the most haphazardly aggressive jerks on the road. Since all the PR in the world can’t tone that one down, my question remains open to the SF-MTA: what value are you really providing?

Uber has built-in accountability: it shows the rider exactly where their dispatched car is in real-time, provides updated ETAs, allows the customers to rate their drivers, and the drivers to rate the customers. Accountability. It also lets customers know when the car has arrived, and offers text & phone options to communicate with the driver.

With the ubiquity of the social web and with exposed, living reputations tied to both businesses and customers, the game’s changed. Customer expectations have changed, and the consensus among most urbanites under 40 these days is that dammit, our experience matters. The soft-skills & experiental details that previously couldn’t be tracked or managed, now can be. Because those factors impact us far more often than the Steve McQueen style law-breaking antics that may or may not happen with the hypothetical rogue cabbie the SF-MTA could have saved us from—you get the idea. Value. Perception. Probability. Choices. Math. And on an aside: as mentioned above, many of the medallion-regulated SF-MTA cabbies still drive worse than an angry, jilted Steve McQueen on a bad hair day.

All that said, Uber is far from perfect. Far. And the key problem I’ve been seeing emerge with Uber, is that they’re following the “run before you can walk” growth model established as a status-quo by tech startups, without considering maturation of their product around live market needs that only become evident once you push a service live. Yes, I said service.

To date, the most noticeable changes in the Uber product have been pricing models. Oh, and you can now split the fare with other riders via the app, too. Nothing in its core product offering or passenger experience has been touched since the Uber Cab app was first launched ~2009, though. And despite what the lawyers have been vociferously arguing to PUCs nationwide: Guys, y’all do run a SERVICE.

Just as the SF-MTA needs to look in the face the reality of customer expectations & their onus to deliver, Uber needs to face the fact that yes, they are a SERVICE. Yet they claim to be a broker. But they‘re not “a Broker,” in the same way Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress got stained from a blow-job; and not from an act with lesser consequences than “Sexual Relations.”

“Sexual Relations” and “Broker” are legalese, not human mental models. Those matter, when managing user & customer expectations. Constituent expectations, too—hence the giggles “sexual relations” said in an authoritative voice, so easily commands on a dime.

Maybe though, that’s part of the problem. Survival-necessity for Uber to defend itself against PUCs worldwide and in a legally consistent narrative, could well have them avoiding any updates to their service that present themselves as more than a cold brokerage? Acknowledge the very human part of things?

Nobody calls Jewish Matchmakers “just a broker,” and Uber is to ridesharing about as much of a shadkhen bursting with naches as it gets. Which of course then amplifies the awful, when glitchy experiences happen. Most notably in my own experiences with Uber, when drivers have ditched on me late at night in hard to find areas. Because there’s no phone-available support, and “filing a help ticket” feels absurd when wanting to flag a problem, Twitter is then the only recourse. Which makes me feel like Linda Tripp’s nosejob. Or something.

The app does has a “help” section that loads a webpage, which can slide as an afterthought of a newish product. Live in over seventy metro-areas though, Uber: not acceptable. In a recent article that addresses the needs of riders in wheelchairs or otherwise physically impaired, the number of cabs in SF that do include lifts, was quantified at ~6%. In the CA-PUC’s criticism of TNCs not currently serving this population, five of the TNCs—including Uber—filed Disability Access Plans. A gem of a quote from the above linked article, states that:


“…the companies said they will ensure drivers don’t discriminate against disabled customers, and already have or will make their apps and websites accessible to blind users.”

Sorry, but there just is no excuse for apps or websites not being 508 compliant. None. It’s 2014. Conversely though, there’s also no excuse for my government to try forcing me to only solicit paid-rides in rickety puke-mobilles outfitted like a jail cell, complete with gobbs of posted ALL CAPS NOTIFICATIONS behind scratched Lexan panes, bolted onto every visible surface… regulatory stickers, chatter from the CB radio, the potpourri of accompanying odors, and of course that obnoxious LCD ad-screen that is muteable, but not turn-offable.

I had been wondering what Uber’s offerings were for the deaf or visually impaired, but if their app doesn’t even meet basic 508 needs, I figure it’s safe to assume they haven’t even given the customer experience of deaf or blind passengers (awaiting a ride, being notified their ride has arrived, once in the vehicle, at the end of the ride) a passing thought.

Yes, this issue gets me worked up. A lot. I’ve loathed SF’s taxies for all 20 of the years I’ve lived here. Detroit’s and Ann Arbor’s were no better, though. Oakland, the same. Portland’s were marvelous when I was there 2 years ago, but their dispatch system is all digital. Even though it still requires passengers to call-in to the dispatch center, all in-car units are digital; GPS enabled & little to no driver interaction required. To the point that most cars don’t even have CB radios anymore. And the cars are pleasant. And that gave me a lot of hope. Especially considering that my time in Portland, coincided with Uber’s launch of their Surge Pricing system… which to me, was market economics hitting an all-time low.

So, bigger-picture: Uber is a glossy little snake akin to Brad Pitt’s character from Thelma & Louise. Most PUCs? Slovenly, entitled, frequently scary… but they won’t rip me off. So, maybe they’re the love-child never realized between Cersei Lannister and Hodor? The SF-MTA and PUCs care about fairness because in theory they have to. They’re government agencies. And the businesses they issue medallions to have no real competition, so what motivates leased drivers to simply be “polite” or “pleasant,” versus quantifiably life-threatening?

TNCs conversely, don’t have to be fair at all: they can be swarmy little pimps that serve the majority, poo-poo the “edge case” humans we have laws to ensure aren’t discriminated against, exploit demand surges despite having the tech capabilities to far more intelligently and fairly handle the problem, so on and so forth.

So: where can we go from here? My honest $.02, is that between the two “sides” there are fair & fabulous solutions to everything, and that our culturally litigious ways of mitigating conflict need to take a backseat to just solving the real problems.

To Uber

• Make a stripped-down, white-label version of your app that taxi companies can use to provide the same basic transparency to their customers, as you do; tracking where drivers are, their ETAs, reputation profiles, etc. In-app payments, as well. Taxi Magic does something like this, and may already own the market. There’s always room for improvement.

• Consider the business-models that Taxi companies operate in (leased-to-driver versus employed-driver), and through a white-label product accommodate both. Incentives for a central dispatch-human to perform well, too?

• Build support & basic conflict resolution solutions into the app. Not just as an iFrame’d help-desk browser pane.

• Have customer support reps available via the phone in all metro areas, 24/7, for customers who’ve already initiated a ride. You’ve only been around for a few years, and are already at $1 billion annually in gross bookings & roughly $213 million a year of that, in revenues. Don’t tell me you can’t afford that.

• Make your app 508 compliant, and do more with your fleet to surpass basic 508 requirements for public transportation, with select vehicles. You have the capital to innovate. The social-good PR factor will go much further than glossy brand-centric advertising. Just don’t charge the folks with disabilities extra…

• Stop being such a greedy little brat with the Surge Pricing thing. You’re a smart app for cryin’ out loud! Get some computer science into the mix that benefits your customers, not just your pockets. Tiered levels of service? Those are mutually beneficial, and don’t take advantage of anyone.

Screenshot of Uber’s
Surge Pricing in effect.

Surge pricing? That takes advantage of market circumstances beyond any one individual’s control, and excludes those less capable of paying insane prices as a very pimpy, lazy solution to the supply/demand problem.

Put customer loyalty systems or gaming strategies to work to manage supply/demand challenges without exploitative douchey measures, and to reward customers who’ve paid small amounts many times. Versus simply those ok being hosed when you’re the one in a position to gain, far more than the customer. Really. You could even implement a gaming system with year-round in-app promotions paid for by advertisers, where there’s no financial loss from ditching Surge Pricing and customers have a better experience.

To Taxi Companies

• Step-up to the plate, and actually make an effort to compete with the TNCs on the basis of providing pleasant customer experiences to folks. When someone pukes in the back-seat? It may not be “your job” to clean it up, but—well—you get it.

• Make drivers accountable for their actions. Today they in no way, whatsoever, are. Other than of course, if they kill somebody or get arrested for a DUI, or get caught speeding too many times, they’re either fined or their license is taken away. Which is kind of a joke. Especially if you’re a woman, and double-especially if you’re simply trying to pay with a credit-card with a hostile driver.

Manners aren’t hard. The Russian Bread Line expectation that customers will file a complaint with the SF-MTA or write a letter to a company, is ridiculous in the face of app-based reputation systems that are ubiquitous everywhere else in our world (and on an aside, I’ve tried—and it never goes anywhere). If I can research gynecologists on Yelp!, I should be able to gain some visibility into who this guy is that’s about to give me a ride. Sorry, It’s Complicated is a relationship status on Facebook, not a reasonable response.

• Kill all the car-interior postings of everything, less a dramatically simplified driver’s placard—posted on the back of the front seats, in plain view. Paper behind clean Lexan, or as simple, low-brightness OLEDs. In their place, make the same information available via QR Code to passenger mobile devices. Especially kill those awful, bright LCD video screens that blast ads 6" from the passenger’s face.

• Make a variety of payment gateways available to drivers—including app-based payments that are easy for both driver and passenger. The current setup, in which cab companies charge their own surcharge atop the card-company’s fee, drivers resent (and the machines suck).

To All Involved

• In each city, create a Driver & Passenger Pact. I saw one in an Alameda cab, and fell in love. It was so similar to one a former employer of mine has for its Social CRM customers. And it’s so simple.

Oakland taxi “Passenger Bill Of Rights & Responsibility”

It’s human, and a step ahead of all the complaney, legally, process-y #firstworldproblems way of doing things that can more often than not just be avoided. When it’s made plain and clear that simply fair treatment & good manners are expected from both sides.


• If a driver wants to charge customers a lower-fare for cash-only rides, let them—but don’t let drivers flatly refuse passengers who don’t have cash and who need to pay with a card.

• Municipalities need to simplify and agree upon one passenger-centric Driver’s Placard. This should have on it no more than two sections: Driver’s Info, and the Driver & Passenger Pact. The Driver’s Info should consist of no more than the driver’s photo, first name, last name, media/app handle, and service company. All in a clean, jargon and gov/graphic-adormnent free layout that would make Service Design practitioners the world over, proud.

Sure, slap a holographic/shiney/embossed frame around the edges if it’d make people in suits feel better. But my gawd, it’s supposed to serve a purpose… and through scratched Lexan, do the current ones? They sure look “official,” but the cognitive burden required to parse let alone remember any of its information is too much for them to serve their functional purpose. All the information I didn’t mention: such as the car number, the expiration of the driver’s certification, etc.? That can all be looked-up in an app. Don’t make passengers over-parse to get basic information that we can get at a later time, if we’re able to remember the simple and obvious, simply and obviously.

Seriously.

If everyone comes together to get on the reality bus and out of the courtrooms, I have a lot of optimism—as both the technology and the resources exist, for everyone to win. And sure, for Uber to still come out making an assload of money. Maybe not per the greediest means possible, but plenty as an industry leader in technology and maybe in services, just the same.


Note: This is a re-post from my blog, bigwheel.net. I’m still kicking the tires on both to figure-out which platform seems to work best for me…
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