Ahh, Uber rides – the only time it’s acceptable to get in the back of a stranger’s car and pay them for the privilege. It’s weird how normal it’s become for someone you’ve never met to take you somewhere you’re too lazy to walk to and then happily accept peanuts for it. I guess that’s how taxis were once, before cabbies realised how much they could get from ripping off tourists.
But Uber has become so popular it’s now an accepted mode of transport like any other. "Getting an Uber" is now in the common parlance, distinct from "getting a taxi" and as easy to understand as "getting the tube" – even though neither actually refers to the vehicle you'll be taking. Carving out its own little niche in the transport industry as a service as convenient as a taxi but as affordable as a bus, the latter of which is thanks to the introduction of Uber Pool – an option that means you can share the ride with yet more strangers for even less money.
Uber has got so common it’s now integrated into Google Maps as a dedicated travel option; an incredible rise since its 2009 foundation. After becoming a bona-fide hit earlier this decade, the American firm is now used all over the world, meaning you can launch the app almost anywhere. As long as it’s operating in the city you’re in, you’re laughing. Right? Well, not always.
Uber as a Local Delicacy
During my three years using it, I’ve found that while Uber works pretty well here in the UK -- with particularly bad experiences being few and far between -- this doesn’t always translate the same abroad. For travelling Uber users, the app can seem a life saver, offering some familiarity in an unfamiliar place; a shining beacon of reassurance, especially in far, faraway places. "Ah I know Uber, it’s reliable and safe, this is easy", say smartphone-wielding travellers, Phileas Foggs mainlining apps. But this feeling of home comfort can soon turn sour and seep down out of you, through the car doors and into the desolate drains where thousands of people’s shit goes to die. Uber in foreign countries varies from culture to culture, changing significantly from place to place, so don’t fall into the ‘familiarity trap’ as I like to call it.
I’ve used Uber everywhere I can: around Europe, US, and even Asia. I recently travelled to Vietnam and was surprised to find it available in its capital Hanoi. I couldn’t wait to use it because I figured I’d be able to jump in a car, be taken to a pre-defined place without needing cash, and not have to explain to the cab driver where I wanted to go in a multitude of hand gestures and pointless mouthing of English words.
Turns out, I did. The GPS took us off target. When he told me I’d arrived at my destination, I clearly hadn’t. He had no idea either. I ended up dropped somewhere I hoped was at least close by, leaving me to wander around clueless until I found my destination. I did in the end, but not after a lot of cursing at myself for letting my guard down and thus being unprepared for getting lost because I was so used to putting so much trust in Uber. Then again, I wasn’t expecting the driver to have a “this’ll do” attitude.
While this left a sour taste in my mouth – although that might have been dinner - it was soon a distant memory when I discovered how much the almost-traumatic experience had cost. You think Uber in the UK is cheap? You should try Vietnam! The 40min journey across the city was 70,000 dong (£2.10p) ON SURGE. It was only then that I began to question whether the stress of uncertainty was actually worth the pennies it cost to get me there. It probably depends on how cheap you are (very cheap, in my case).
Sometimes though, even a free Uber ride wouldn’t be worth it, as I’ve come to realise. It can even be quite dangerous. Let me tell you a little story about riding Uber in the country it was born.
New York, New York
When I was in New York earlier this year, a friend and I decided to go see a Jets game, you know, like proper Americans. We weren’t in a mood to take the seven subway trains to get there either, so we ordered an Uber from Brooklyn to the Jets stadium in New Jersey, a journey which should have taken 45mins. The driver pulled up, we jumped in. Yep, Uber: we got this, we know how this works, ignoring the stale aroma that hit us as we opened the doors.
A few minutes into the ride the driver took a wrong turn. “Maybe he knows a shortcut,” I said. My friend shook his head apprehensively. He pointed him in the right direction though, so it was all good. Well, until it happened again. And again. And again. And again, every ten minutes of the journey.
Like this, but not fun, with a driver somehow even more incompetent
Despite our frustration, we persevered with the driver. When I say persevered, I mean shouted and screamed and almost began to cry. At one point he was swerving all over the freeway. After a few near misses, several honks and a hell of a lot of breath-holding, we came to the assumption he was either drunk or sleep depraved. Maybe both. We checked the app and in a moment of sheer horror, discovered that he had a two-star rating.
This was just before he began to speed the wrong way down a one way street, and then stopped in the middle of the freeway to try to make a right as some hefty American vehicles veered around us, honking like crazy. At this stage, we are fearing for our lives and just wanted to get out. Eventually, we did. “Where are we?” . The middle of nowhere, that's where. The Jets stadium, which we had come very close to at one point but then far away from again, was just about visible. Though it may well have been a mirage caused by stress, to be honest.
We pulled over anyway, and got out. Just when we thought the ordeal was over as we walked in the general direction of the stadium, a cop car pulls up and told us to get back in the Uber. The horror. The reason? It wasn't not a pedestrianised area. In our state of weariness, we refused to get back in the car, telling the cop of our nightmare experience. Nothing could have got us back in there.
“You guys are killing me...get in,” he said, and gave us a ride to the stadium, with minutes to spare. A real American hero.
The whole thing was like something from a Carry On film, it had taken us 1.5 hours to get there instead of 45mins, and despite our many attempts at complaining to get our money ($100 instead of $50) back afterwards, Uber refused.
While the Uber driver who we happened to get was a complete lunatic and nearly killed us, is it really surprising that you get some drivers like this? Why would every driver care so much about doing their job well when the pay is far from amazing. Maybe this is the counterbalance of a convenient service that’s as cheap as chips. And it seems to be getting worse as the company expands and gets even bigger.
I have had friends who have worked for Uber and to their frustration, the firm is constantly making it harder for them to earn a decent living.
One, who preferred not to be named, said: “When I first started driving back in 2014 I recall bringing in a solid $1300 per week. That was driving maybe 30-38 hours. And then Uber kept lowering fares and pumped more and more drivers into the market, diluting the ridership share.”
My buddy has earned a little as $37 a week in recent months. You also need to consider that taxes aren't taken out. Drivers are left with that tab and so from their earnings, drivers also have to pay for fuel, maintenance and all the other costs associated with running a car.
“I've seen my car's value significantly drop in value because of the heavy mileage,” my buddy added.
It’s quite worrying then that there’s little incentive for drivers to not want to kill the passengers they’re ferrying from A to B, some of which are probably expecting a perfect driving experience for next to nothing. So, this was just a bit of a heads up guys. Be Uber safe; it’s not always a smooth drive.