Friday, 5 August 2016

Welcome to the Uber California


My Uber stood in the doorway
I heard the mission bell
And I was thinking to myself
This could be heaven or this could be hell

Something different on my latest visit to the USA was my vastly increased use of Uber, the transport service that allows riders to book trips via a dedicated app.

I'd dallied with Uber on my 2015 US visit, using it for a handful of rides in LA, Portland and Seattle. But this time Narrelle and I used the service extensively, partly because Discover Los Angeles and Visit San Luis Obispo County covered my Uber expenses in their respective cities.

In total, we used Uber 28 times across these four cities:
  • Los Angeles: 20 rides.
  • San Diego: 3 rides.
  • Santa Barbara: 2 rides.
  • San Luis Obispo: 3 rides.

As this was the first time I'd used the service so extensively overseas, here are some observations from the viewpoint of a foreign traveller...

Convenience.

For ease of use, Uber beats catching a local taxi hands-down. To call a local cab, you generally have to find the right phone number, ring it and relay your location (though some local cab services might have their own apps, which you'd have to identify and download).

By contrast, with Uber I occasionally needed to adjust the location pin in the app to precisely show where we were, then entered our destination by name (eg California Science Center). There was never a need to enter an address if we were headed to a business or other landmark.

After registering a request, we had onscreen indication of how far away the Uber car is, as well as its make and registration number.

My only problem with this was that the app's font size was tiny, making it difficult to read the car's number. Also the reliance on giving you the make of car assumes you recognise car makes, which I don't. But there was usually a small colour photo of the vehicle to help.

An odd and disconcerting quirk was that several Uber cars lacked number plates, which apparently is OK in California in the interval between buying one's car and the plates arriving.

Comfort.

Except for one occasion, we used the Uber X service, a notch above the cheapest shared-car option known as Uber Pool. Understandably for a big city like LA, Uber X drivers would often own small vehicles with tight turning circles which could easily manoeuvre through congested traffic.

That did mean, however, that two big people like us often had difficulty squeezing in and out of these compact cars, and getting fiddly rear seatbelts to fasten. On one occasion a sportier make of car was extremely difficult to get into, though once slotted into the front seat I was comfortable enough.

Safety.

Nearly all the drivers we used were safe on the roads, tackling traffic conditions well without taking risks. We resultingly gave them a five-star rating via the app (the ratings are used by Uber to disqualify drivers who fall below a set level).

The two exceptions were drivers who hadn't installed a cradle for their phones, so would shift their attention between the road and the phones in their hands. Not an experience you feel entirely safe with as a passenger.

In both cases we gave these drivers a lower rating than the usual five stars, and for one driver we followed it up with comments which were later acknowledged by Uber.

Cost.

Uber seemed reasonably priced, even in a big city like LA where congestion could slow things down. Several of our Los Angeles trips landed between US$5-10, with a few longer ones around US$20.

In LA we still occasionally used public transport, which was great value at $1.75 per trip and could be congestion-free if travelling via the Metro subway/light rail network.

In other places, though, Uber was sometimes an affordable alternative to public transport. On our last day in San Diego we planned to visit Balboa Park with its many museums (see photo above). Two bus fares from the Downtown to the park's vicinity would have cost US$4.50, whereas Uber got us there for US$5.75. It was worth the extra buck for the door-to-door convenience and saved time.

Payment.

This was the single most attractive advantage of Uber over traditional taxis. When each trip ended, we said goodbye and got out. End of story - no mucking around with foreign cash or credit cards. That really is a great convenience for travellers.

There was some discussion earlier this year whether Uber drivers should be tipped, after Uber said it would neither encourage nor discourage tipping.

Personally I think the introduction of cash tipping would be a disaster. The seamless cash-free aspect of Uber payment is one of its greatest assets.

The drivers. 

We had conversations with nearly all of our drivers, especially since I often sat in the front passenger seat where it was easy to talk. I was interested in whether the drivers were doing the job full-time or part-time, and whether they were able to make enough money for it to be worthwhile.

The responses were an interesting mix. Many were driving for Uber full-time, but there was a large number of drivers who fitted it in part-time around other jobs or activities.

There was a 9-to-5 accountant who drove on weekends because he liked the interaction; a musician who was often away touring but drove between tours; and students who drove when they had free time, to make some extra money. For these people, the flexibility of the gig was a big drawcard.

Only one driver specifically said she felt they didn't earn enough money, and thought LA's cheap public transport fares should be raised so Uber fares could go up too (a position I couldn't agree with, on equity as well as environmental grounds).

I was interested by how few women were Uber drivers, given the greater security from Uber knowing the identity of riders. Only two of our 28 drivers were female. Our first woman driver really enjoyed the job though, and had decked out her car with leopard-print seat covers to mark out a visual difference.

Interestingly, all of our drivers in LA were either Latino or black, and all young; not surprising perhaps for such an ethnically diverse city, but it did make me wonder if white guys weren't attracted to driving for Uber in Los Angeles for some reason.

In the other three cities there was more diversity in age and background, though we didn't have any female drivers outside LA.

The verdict.

Uber was much more pleasant to use than regular taxis, especially in LA; I'd used cabs there before and they'd presented all the shortcomings I'd noted in taxi services in Australia.

For a traveller in a foreign country, Uber is particularly appealing for two reasons: there's no need to handle unfamiliar cash, and you don't need a deep understanding of the local geography as the app handles that for you. These aspects were both much appreciated by us in California.

If I'd been paying for all my Uber use, however, I would have used it significantly less in Los Angeles and used public transport more. LA's Metro trains and buses are generally modern, clean and efficient, and great value with their US$1.75 single-trip fares.

That said, Uber was very handy for short time-saving trips, especially in less congested locations (eg we used it once to get to and from a laundromat in Santa Barbara). On top of that, we got to meet a random bunch of cheerful locals. I'll be using the service again, when on the road.