Uber or No Uber

Disclaimer: The following post is about an app that has been deemed illegal in some areas.  In New Jersey, the Department of Banking & Insurance has issued a warning regarding the use of Uber, Lyft, Sidecar and related rideshare services.  Readers are strongly advised to research the legality of using such apps and the consequences of their use.

It wasn’t until the first week of October of 2014 that I first used an app service, activated with my aging smart phone, called Uber, to get rides from private drivers. Strange as it might sound, I was picked up on multiple occasions by a complete stranger, in their car, whereby Uber got a percentage of the fair paid by me, electronically, to the driver.

The circumstances were thus: a very close friend (I'll preserve his anonymity and refer to him as “Roy ” in this post) was getting married in San Francisco and I was staying alone in his apartment (in Concord, CA) while he stayed in the city with his fiancé. From their apartment, I wasn’t going to be in walking distance of the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) rail system and I wouldn’t have access to a car, I didn’t want to spend extra money for a rental car. If I could just get to and from a BART station I would be fine for the duration of my trip - even getting back to the Oakland airport by myself. This trip was short and had a very narrow focus: be at the wedding and the luncheon afterwards and get back home to NJ on time. Taxis would work but I would spend a lot of money quickly that way.

Almost immediately after picking me up from the Oakland airport Roy prodded me to install Uber on my phone. According to Roy, Uber was going to be my go-to car transportation on this trip. Roy is a computer programmer who is always enthusiastic about ways in which the Internet can make life easier – an early adopter, someone always at the vanguard of using new-ish technology; a die-hard believer that if you’re not availing yourself of new, smart and affordable technology, there’s nobody to blame but yourself, as if this is some kind of moral failing. I find this approach of his at times charming, at times a bit premature.  So I installed Uber on my cell phone by way of the Google Play app store on my Android cell phone that first night. Roy gave me a brief tutorial on using Uber the next morning - before we separated from each other until a restaurant/bar meeting the night before his wedding. Upon opening Uber for the first time the app guided me through syncing it with my PayPal account (it takes credit cards as well).

If you’ve never heard of Uber, well it’s not truly new. It’s just not truly ubiquitous around the world (nor is it legal in some places). Uber is a company originally based in San Francisco, founded in 2010, which uses drivers-for-hire. The Uber service I used on my trip is “UberX” which is Uber’s non-luxury, smaller car service, as opposed to “Uber Black ”.

On my first attempt at using the app I didn't fumble very much. I activated the app – my position was picked up by GPS automatically; I typed in my destination (the Walnut Creek BART station); text appeared on the app telling me who the nearest Uber driver was (and how near) and how much the ride would cost. I affirmed I wanted that car mentioned, it tells you the make of the car and the driver's name and you can check their feedback rating ala Yelp. Within just a few minutes the driver appeared in his personal car by the sidewalk outside my friends' apartment. And I got in the car. What stood out to me about that Uber ride was how seamless it seemed. There was no running meter. The driver was friendly but not too talkative, which to me is almost perfect. And at the end of the ride I didn't have to exchange cash or my card. I just exited the vehicle after thanking the driver. I then saw an email on my cell phone for the receipt of the PayPal fee I'd just paid for the ride. That was it!

Here are a few things I learned while using Uber over that Bay Area trip. Don't expect an Uber driver to be available around early in the morning, particularly on a weekend. I just couldn't access an Uber driver early on the morning of the wedding, around 8 AM when I tried on a Sunday, and was forced to call a cab instead to get to the BART in time. But on every other occasion, about 5 other times that trip, I found an Uber driver quickly. Also, you can share rides using Uber. I shared an Uber ride with a couple who also attended the wedding, there is a feature to do this in the app and it seemed a pretty neat way to split the fair – I had to accept an electronic request through the app to split the fair with the other Uber user. Lastly, not all Uber drivers are as polite as my first 5 Uber drivers were, then again, in fairness not all cab drivers are perfectly polite either. That very last driver, for some strange reason, decided to talk to me about his personal religious views, completely unsolicited, during my brief car ride with him ( and they were not very tolerant, were paranoid, and made me feel uncomfortable). That said, I did not give that driver a particularly positive review through the Uber app after the ride ended.

You may want to give Uber or other apps like it a try, but be aware that such services may not be even be legal in your town and you can actually get ticketed by police for using them. Competing services include Lyft and Sidecar, which operate in the same way.  Do your own research, check out reviews from the Better Business Bureau; search Google News for stories about these services and their legality, risks and potential pluses and minuses; even ask local law enforcement about using such apps in your area – whether it's fully legal or reasonably safe to use them.

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention, I did get to Roy and his wife's wedding in time and it was really, really beautiful.

- J. Oliver

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