I don’t know how to feel as I watch the California legislature and various taxi unions try to regulate Uber out of existence. I’m aware that Uber skirts a lot of important car service regulations when it comes to making sure drivers have insurance, or making sure drivers are paid fairly, or making sure drivers aren’t drunk. I think all of these are important regulations that ought to be enforced. I just want them to find a way to enforce those regulations without making Uber any less convenient or more expensive. Because I hate driving, and I don’t know how I’d continue to live in LA without the ability to push a button and summon a clean Acura full of complimentary bottled water to whisk me to my destination for only $7.83.
Believe me, the service is not perfect by any means. But that’s part of the experience. As I see it, Uber is pretty much a tradeoff: If you want to be driven somewhere for not very much money at the drop of a hat, Uber can hook that up for you. You just have to accept the fact that the person driving you there isn’t a professional driver – it’s just a guy who has a car and needs money badly enough to let complete strangers ride in it.
A couple of weeks ago I took an Uber to Bob Hope Airport. It’s five miles from my apartment and is extremely easy to get to – you turn right on Magnolia, you turn left on Hollywood Way, and you’re there – so I assumed that the driver wouldn’t have any trouble finding it and got lost in my phone for most of the ride.
Ten minutes later the car came to a stop and the driver cleared his throat. I looked up and found that we were idling on a mostly unlit access road next to an empty office park and a 12-foot high chain link fence separating us from the far side of Bob Hope’s runway. I was immediately on edge, because I watched The Sopranos at an impressionable age and on that show, pulling onto an unlit access road near an airport never bodes well for whoever’s riding in the backseat.
The driver turned and looked at me hopefully.
“Is this, uh… This is the airport?” English was not his first language.
“...I need to go to the terminal.” I said.
“Oh.” He breathed, a helpless look in his eyes. He turned back around and looked at the fence. “Maybe… Maybe there’s another way in?”
“Really?” I said. “Do you think so? You think there might be a more formal entrance to this airport instead of just an impenetrable fence topped with razorwire? Well, shit, man, if you say so – you’re the driver, so I figure you know these things.”
Well, no, I didn’t say that. But I definitely thought it as I pulled out my phone to give him directions, and I definitely made a mental note to put it in the blog I would write about the experience at a later date.
I directed him to the nearest surface street and we began to skirt the edges of the airport, working our way around to the terminal. Ten more minutes later we were coming up on the last turn to get there.
“Okay, you’ll want to turn right here on Hollywood Way.”
His wide eyes flicked to me in the rear view mirror. The car didn’t change lanes. Hollywood Way was coming up fast.
We passed a massive sign beside the road reading “BURBANK BOB HOPE AIRPORT – NEXT RIGHT”
“Yes, right on Hollywood Way! Like the sign says! Here! Turn here! Turn here! Turn…”
We blew straight through the intersection without turning.
“Was… Oh… Was that it?”
“Yep.” I sighed, turning and watching the terminal shrink behind us. “That was it.”
Even though my car was apparently being driven by Tina from Bob’s Burgers, we managed to get to the terminal in time for my flight. I’d made a point of leaving extra early because I was taking an Uber and knew from previous experience that sometimes their drivers have a little trouble finding out of the way destinations like major regional airports.
That said, with the benefit of GPS most Uber drivers are more than capable of getting you where you need to go in a timely fashion. But I’ve found that when you don’t pay the price for your cheap ride in driver incompetence, you instead pay by being subjected to excruciating conversation.
The other night I took an Uber to a bar, and as we pulled away from the curb the driver asked the obligatory Uber question – “Is this music okay with you?”
It was soft, completely unobtrusive techno music. “Yeah, it’s fine.”
In those rare, perfect Uber rides, this is where the conversation ends.
“So it’s not offensive to you?” He asked.
“What kind of music would be offensive to you? Would rap offend you? Would country offend you?”
Oh, for fuck’s sake, here we go. I thought.
This became a segue into a diatribe about the types of music my driver didn’t like, which then morphed into a rundown of all the recent tech news articles my driver had read in the past week, and then somehow turned into a lengthy and convoluted explanation of all of his personal life philosophies.
In situations like these, I fall back on one of the small talk skills I’ve honed over the course of hundreds of conversations with actors at parties: Quit listening and occasionally respond in the affirmative using some of the words the other person said. So far nobody has ever noticed that these responses don’t really mean anything.
“…yeah man, y’know, it’s like, with online dating now, everybody’s got so many more options it’s like they don’t want to take the time to try and connect with anybody, y’know?” He said.
“Totally!” I said. “It’s hard making a connection sometimes.”
“…but then the guy who owns the bar changed his mind the night of the show and said I couldn’t play the song, and I wanted to blow my stack but hey, I mean, what do you do, y’know?” He said.
“Ah, that sucks.” I said. “But he owns the bar, so it is what it is.”
“…so I’m driving these two 16 year olds to the Echoplex and one of them is freaking out because he thinks they’re going to miss the show and I’m like, I said to them, like this journey right here that we’re taking, why can’t this just be a cool experience, y’know? Just on its own? And I saw it, it was, like, a total shift in his thinking, he was like, ‘Yeah, why am I making this a drag?’” The driver said as we pulled up to outside the bar.
“Good for you telling them that – nobody ever appreciates experiences!” I said, clawing at the door handle to try and escape. “Well, thanks for the ride!”
“No problem, bud!” And then, as the car pulled away up the road, he stuck his head out the window and yelled to me, “PEACE!”
If regulators really want to level the playing field between Uber and taxis, they should give up on the regulations and just put all that money toward a public information campaign reminding consumers that an Uber isn’t better than a taxi – it’s just unpleasant in different ways.