I’m in San Francisco this week: the spiritual home of new, weird and wonderful shit you can do with your phone. One of those weirdly wonderful things you can do is order a car to take you somewhere via an app thanks to Uber. The car service has been pushing ride-sharing to the bleeding edge in San Francisco recently with a service tier called UberPOOL that sees you ride with other users simultaneously. Uber wants to bring it to Australia, and I’m still not sure if that’s a good idea.
UberPOOL (or carpooling with Uber to break it down) is a simple concept: it’s a service tier that matches users going in the same direction and assigns them the same car to ride in. It adds “a few extra minutes to your trip” according to Uber, and costs half the price of taking your own personal UberX vehicle to your destination. Uber is currently running POOL in San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles and Paris.
The service certainly has its upsides. It’s great for the environment because it means you don’t take unnecessary trips; it really is insanely cheap, and it’s actually pretty convenient for common trips like airport runs or inner-city drop offs.
On the other hand, it’s kind of weird. Not only are you getting into a stranger’s car and just trusting them to safely take you where you want to go, you’re also trusting another stranger to jump into the back seat with you and go to pretty much the same rough location.
After a long, long day covering WWDC, I decided to partake in the Californian institution of an In N’Out burger. I took an UberX down to the burger joint, and after consuming said deliciousness (Cheeseburgers with pickle, served Protein Style, natch), I ordered an UberPOOL back to my hotel on the edge of the Tenderloin district (renowned for being a dangerous area).
My POOL arrived and it was just like jumping into an UberX car, until the driver’s app beeped and we went to pick up the second rider. The app gave me her name (but I won’t give it to you), and the driver and I travelled to the pickup location. UberPOOL drivers won’t wait too long for you to jump in once they arrive so as not to inconvenience the other rider, so it’s the additional pickup is usually nice and quick. After about two minutes, the second rider jumped in and we started on our way.
And then something weird happened. It wasn’t like getting into the back seat with a friend and chatting as you travel to your destination. It was dead silent, despite my awkward attempt at saying hello.
As the driver sings along to Cyndi Lauper on the radio, I realise that this isn’t so much us getting a lift together as it is us getting a bus, only on a smaller scale. In the same way you don’t talk to people on a bus or train, you don’t really talk to anyone you pool with.
I arrive at my hotel, thank them both for the “company” and exit the vehicle. $7 is charged to my account thanks to a special offer and I’m happy with the service I’ve received.
As I got into the lift and thumbed my hotel security key, In N’Out still pleasantly digesting in my belly, I started thinking of everything that could go wrong with POOL.
Let’s play Devil’s advocate for a moment and say that the person you’re matched to ride with is a weirdo. You’re dropped off at your house which is in the same neighbourhood as them. Congratulations: a weirdo now knows where you live.
What happens if the person you match with has less than pure intentions when getting into the back seat with you? We’ve heard stories of drivers behaving appallingly, is it really a stretch to think that some riders aren’t capable of the same?
It makes me think of all the old “stranger danger” lectures my mother gave me back in the day*.
(*she still gives them to me before I travel anywhere despite being 27 years old.)
Ultimately, if I had to choose, I’d say UberPOOL is a good idea. If I hadn’t been paired with the mystery mute lady last night then we would have been taking two cars at once to roughly the same place. That’s obnoxiously inefficient both for the environment and for the city’s roads. That being said, I still have my reservations.
It only takes getting in the car with one weirdo to really turn you off the idea. Since my random companion wasn’t a weirdo, it was perfectly fine. But how can the ride-sharing service protect other riders against potentially malicious weirdos? It can’t, and we’ve arrived at the corner of Suspicion and Hesitation, where I’m now living. It’s going to take me a while to move from this particular street corner I think.