After arriving at Los Angeles International, I hopped into a taxi and headed to Silver Lake, the East Hollywood neighbourhood I'd planned to use as HQ for a few days vacationing, sightseeing and working in L.A. The fee for the half-hour-ish cab ride? A whopping $75 (U.S.) after tip. Like an infomercial character drowning in cascading Tupperware, I ogled the receipt quizzically, all "There's got to be a better way!"
In many cities, residents are increasingly saying that way is UberX, the ride-sharing service that turns anyone's car into a personal taxi and any given driver into an independently contracted chauffeur. The experience boasts several advantages over calling a cab, No. 1 being that it's cheaper. Much cheaper. My return trip to LAX was just $33.74. No tip required. Thanks to hundreds of thousands of drivers in 58 countries around the world, travellers are increasingly turning to Uber to cut costs. (Not to mention the fact that the app is a useful tool when you don't speak the local language.) Hotels have jumped on the trend, eager to make life easier for guests. Hyatt integrated Uber into its own app, while members of the Starwood Preferred Guest program can earn points for rides. Other properties incorporate Uber trips into special packages: At Miami's YVE Hotel, for example, the first ride is on the house.
But perhaps nowhere is Uber more of a traveller's friend than in Los Angeles, a city scaled to the size and velocity of automobiles. Subways and buses can get you around, but what tourist wants to spend his time unravelling a baffling metro system? If you truly want to see L.A. "like a local," as the cliché goes, use one of its 20,000 Uber contractors (or "driver-partners") – far and away the most in any city in the United States. Here, Uber is less a service than a lifestyle: ferrying club-goers too soused to drive, delivering fresh food in minutes (using UberEATS) and even offering a carpooling option, UberPool, which loads multiple users into the same car for just $5.
Sure, Los Angeles has its share of walkable stretches. Take the West Sunset Blvd. section of Silver Lake, full of cheap and delicious restaurants (try the perfectly fiery Thai Boxing Chicken at Night + Market Song) and strip malls that house different articulations of the Platonic ideal of a Hollywood bar: plush upholstery, cheap drinks, bartenders who tell you their names. And you can't miss the Venice Beach boardwalk, which, with its surf shops, T-shirt stands and booths hawking bongs, feels like a vintage late nineties Smash Mouth video.
Uber (and similar services such as Lyft and Sidecar) is a great way to travel between these little pockets – and to more off-the-map locations. In one afternoon, I zipped from Venice Beach to the Museum of Jurassic Technology (displaying primitive 3-D technology and paintings of Soviet space dogs, among other oddities) in the Palms district, and then on to Guelaguetza, a Oaxacan restaurant in Koreatown, where the chips come slathered in chocolate mole and the house band plays Happy Birthday in Spanish seemingly every 15 minutes. Total cost: about $75, same as my trip from the airport.
But more than the deflated pricing and cashless convenience, the sheer novelty of taking a cab that is not a cab is what may give Uber the competitive edge here and in any city.
Taxi drivers – and this is, granted, a broad generalization – often appear browbeaten by the years on the job. They chatter into Bluetooth headsets instead of making small talk because, to be fair, passengers tend to ignore them.
The taxi driver is as close as the service economy gets to a non-entity: A non-intrusive, non-invasive, halfway-invisible ghost seemingly calcified against loud talking, making out and sputtering drunken spats. They exist to convey the cab itself from A to B and to accept payment for doing so. They are an appendage of a vehicle. If it weren't for those laminated licences telling you who is behind the wheel, you'd be forgiven for forgetting anyone's actually driving.
Uber restores something of this humanity, for better or worse. Drivers are typically chipper and friendly; some even invite you to sit in the front seat. Upon learning that I was from Toronto, Beth, one of my drivers, engaged me in a lengthy conversation about Drake and Degrassi Junior High, which somehow turned into a discussion of our respective countries attitudes toward racism. ("Your hearts are more progressive," she said of Canadians, which feels at once nice and sort of untrue.)
Another driver keeps the rear console cup holder filled with hard candy, as if the back seat of his Prius were your grandmother's living room. Another cursed not at me, but to me, as if we were old friends. In Santa Ana, one driver offered me gum. He had just eaten a bowl of pho and heard that spearmint would take the taste out of his mouth.
The only time I got the uncomfortable feeling of "Uh, I'm in a stranger's car" occurred when a driver in Costa Mesa told me that Uber is her third job and it helps her mourn her recently deceased husband. I was sympathetic, but accepting a ride from an overworked, recently widowed person I'd just met felt weird, if not out-and-out precarious. (Safety is one of the biggest criticisms of Uber. While incidents are rare, two weeks ago a driver in Mississauga, was charged with sexually assaulting a female passenger, and last week a Toronto man told The Globe and Mail he was forced to jump out of a moving car when his driver refused to stop.)
Now, I understand that this niceness, friendliness and "Would you like some Dentyne?" amiability is yoked to the burdens of the service economy. Passengers rate drivers using a five-star system. William, who had only been Uber-ing people around for about a week, told me that anyone who falls below a 4.6 star rating is alerted of under-performance in a weekly dispatch sent from Uber HQ to all drivers and risks having his account deactivated.
Passengers are likewise rated. This is terrifying in and of itself – as if even the act of sitting in a moving vehicle can be qualified. William's "bad" customers included verge-of-puking drunk guys and a Hollywood exec sipping scotch out of a Dixie cup. Annoyed by my mock-naive reporterly prodding ("Gee, mister, what's it like to drive an Uber?") he threatened to give me two stars unless I gave him five. (I did, not because of the threat, but because I appreciated his impudence of making it.)
Uber essentially loops the purveyor of a service and the consumer of said service in a cheery prisoner's dilemma: Rate highly, or else be poorly rated.
It is frustrating, and fleetingly depressing, to consider the implications. Which is why sometimes unkindness – and even inconvenience – is preferable.
Sometimes we do not need or want or deserve smiles or butterscotches or pleasant conversation. Sometimes we just want to sit slouched in the back of a sticky-floored cab. Sometimes we need to be conveyed by a disinterested – if not secretly contemptuous – third party who mutters into a headset as you make out with someone in the back seat, appendages flailing like a couple of gross squids beholden to animal instincts more imminent than the exchange of five-star ratings.
When I land in Toronto after a week away, too sore and impatient to wait for the $3 TTC Airport Rocket bus, I immediately hop into one of those too-expensive Town Cars idling outside the baggage claim.
Forty-three bucks may be a lot to pay for a ride home, but beyond asking for an address, the driver never makes any idle chit-chat, swears profusely or offers me something to eat. The peace and quiet, and the feeling of being smoothly chauffeured back into the postvacation rhythm of day-to-day life, is priceless.