My freshman year at Boston College, I actually remember taking taxis. It seems like a far-out, obsolete concept to some, but just a few short years ago, the only way a group of six people were going to find their way out of the North End after dinner by car was in one of those elusive SUV cabs, given they weren’t willing to resort to the T. The rides weren’t cheap either, and to be honest, sometimes I would prefer the T, even if it meant the commute time would double. Maybe you could call a company and ask them to send a car to you, and maybe there would be one close by, but 10 minutes after their estimate would have me calling back, only to be told the driver was still “on his way.”
But my freshman year, something else happened. This app called Uber started turning up on flyers and business cards, and started to sponsor tables at events. Students were soon recruited as ambassadors and could be found spamming local Facebook event pages with their referral codes. The offer wasn’t terrible either. Sign up, get $20, refer a friend, get another $20. Among my floormates in CLXF on upper campus, we managed to ride for free around Boston on the weekends for a solid month or two with everyone just trading their referral codes and pooling their promotional credits.
My first impression however, was less than stellar. Having now taken close to 300 rides and driven over 450 miles with Uber, I can safely say my first ride was well below average in terms of quality, but still didn’t stop me from continuing to use the service. The car was old, didn’t have heat, and the seatbelt was jammed so far under the seat that I couldn’t even put it on. I don’t believe the driver understood anything I said to him, but he was on time, got me where I needed to go, and maybe would have cost me $12 were it not for the credits I had.
That year, as Uber was just picking up steam, I remember having that age-old conversation with many drivers about how they decided to start driving for Uber and how profitable it was for them. Back then, I would listen as the drivers would gush about how great it was to work their own hours and rake in the cash driving rowdy college students around on the weekends. No one seemed to mind the size of the cut Uber took because the unprecedented ad-hoc workforce it had created.
But Uber has not been free of reproach all this time. In fact, just months after I began using the app, the first hints of controversy began oozing out of Uber. Sarah Lacy, a former TechCrunch and Businessweek columnist wrote an article slamming Silicon Valley’s “asshole culture.” She condemned Uber as a “company that prides itself on playing rough and aiming to break laws.” One of the founders, Travis Kalanick was challenged by Lacy for his sexist and misogynistic comments about the effect Uber had on his sex life, uttering “we call that boob-er.” Later, BuzzFeed News reported that, during a supposedly off-the-record dinner, Kalanick had mentioned his intention to invest a million dollars in a team of researchers dedicated to investigating the personal lives of those publicly critical of the company and its executives, including Sarah Lacy.
At this point in time, I had only just become familiar with Uber and this controversy seemed concerning as a user, but white noise among the chaos of Bay Area tech start-ups. Today, it seems to fit right into an evolving narrative of a headstrong and ruthless company. Uber then came under fire later that year after Lyft discovered over 5,000 rides had been called and canceled by 177 Uber employees. Not only did this move waste the time of Lyft drivers and disrupt their ability to service their customers, but Uber also reportedly used the occasions to offer cash incentives to the drivers to switch to Uber.
But no critique of Uber’s ethics would be complete without addressing the ongoing lawsuits and protests surrounding the discontentment of traditional cab drivers worldwide, as well as Uber’s own contracted drivers. For better or for worse, Uber disrupted transportation with its ridesharing economy approach. The ad-hoc, at-will employment of drivers worldwide meant that Uber didn’t need to pay for cars, employee benefits, or comprehensive insurance. This lightweight business approach solidified Uber as a technology and logistics company, which leaves the human drivers caught in between.
Since employment laws can vary in each city Uber seeks to operate in, the lawsuits will likely continue and the brazen management of this technology company will continue to agitate its own public image. As recently as this past January, we have seen evidence that more and more people expect not only a company’s figureheads, but the companies themselves, to be actively involved in current events and politics. Today, your ridesharing app’s political views are becoming as important as a politician’s views. Uber learned the hard way when the #DeleteUber movement forced them to clarify their messaging toward the President’s travel ban and the related protests. In the future, I believe more and more companies will be forced to speak up about the political views of their userbase, and any discord could have serious side effects, especially to newer, more vulnerable start-ups.
After having spent $4,864 on Ubers since my first time using the app and having spent nearly 24 hours of my life riding in an Uber, it’s tough for me to imagine life, particularly college life, without the app. But it’s also tough for me to imagine Uber continuing to succeed as a company if they continue to be at odds with the ideology of its vocal users.