Urbanists Hate Uber & Lyft. Here’s One Reason They Should Love Them Instead

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I get it.  Uber and Lyft contribute to traffic congestion, environmental degradation, a decrease in transit usage and an increase VMD (vehicle miles driven).  Despite the fact that ride hailing has become an integral part of our urban transportation fabric, these are all negatives in the eyes of those who are looking to lessen our dependence on the automobile.

But there’s a quietly shining light that is so often overlooked by anyone who doesn’t drive for Uber of Lyft.  It’s subtle but powerful, and it’s based in the essence of what makes driving for these companies intrinsically unique.  Drive for long enough, and I promise, you will begin to understand.

I’ve driven driven over 200 Uber and Lyft rides since starting last fall.  I kept it quiet at first for fear there might be a mini revolt!  But the truth is, now that I know the big-picture benefits of driving for these services, I am proud to talk about the most important positive for every driver.  Allow me to explain.

When I turn on my Uber app and receive a ride request, I can see one thing and one thing alone… how many minutes away my pickup is.  That’s all.  I can’t see where the person is, where they are headed, who they are or how they take their coffee.  I can’t see their name, their gender, their age or their race.  I tap the screen, and the app navigates me to my passenger.

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When I arrive, I pick up my rider, and at that point, I can finally see their destination.  It could be the latest trendy restaurant, or it could be one of our many colleges.  It could be the rider’s place of work, or a trip home from work to see their family.  It could be the pickup of an executive at the airport and a drop-off in one of our wealthy suburbs, or it could be a pickup of a nurse at Strong Hospital and a drop-off in one of Rochester’s many economically challenged neighborhoods.  In just 200 rides, I’ve seen it all… the drunken bar crawler, the father trying to get home to see his kids, the college student who needs to get groceries, and the mother who’s off to her second job to feed her family.  They are young and old, black and white, white collar and blue collar.  Their destinations are places of unimaginable wealth, and places of humbling poverty.  A large percentage don’t have a car, but the bus either doesn’t work for them at all, or does work but will take an hour and a half as opposed to 15 minutes by Uber/Lyft.  College students tell me again and again that they have no interest in driving, that they are perfectly content using ride hailing services to get to where they need to go.  They cite the total cost of car ownership, insurance, maintenance and gas.

The most commonly held misconception regarding ride hailing services is that it’s just driving drunk people around.  And that’s often true on weekend nights.  But the rest of the time, my ridership is dominated by college students and folks who can’t afford a car.  Usually these riders take the bus, but on occasion, they pay a little extra and choose the FAR faster alternative.

I’m very much in touch with my Rochester.  I know and understand the highs and lows of my city.  But even with this knowledge, I’ve learned more about The Flower City from driving for Uber and Lyft than any book, class or lecture could teach me.  I’ve become intimately familiar with some of our poorest neighborhoods.  I’ve had beautiful conversations with a mother working two jobs to support her kids.  I’ve driven a mother and her three kids from their humble inner city apartment to the YMCA so the children could go for a swim.  And by the way, the kids all gave me hugs after the ride was over.  It made my week.

I’ve had powerfully intelligent conversations with passengers about college majors, the state of our city, race relations, politics, spirituality, family, love, and food.  I’ve engaged with symphony conductors and late night dishwashers.  The cross-section of humanity, the real world picture of diversity in my city shows itself in the blank canvas that is the backseat of my car every time I drive for Uber and Lyft.  I get to see my city for what it really is… a place where everyone, no matter their status in life, is just trying to get to where they are going, and just trying to get by.

The true beauty in Uber and Lyft is the fact that you can’t see where anyone is coming from or going to.  You can’t make a judgement based on where someone lives, where they work, or what they look like.  You get a ride request, you accept it, and the adventure of the unknown begins.  Every ride, every passenger and every encounter gives the driver the chance to learn something powerful, to have an encounter that he or she wouldn’t otherwise have.  It is by far the easiest way to understand the big picture of your city, its people, its beautiful highs and its unfortunate circumstances.

While riding hailing companies like Uber and Lyft might present a physical and environmental poison to the typical urbanist perspective, the truth is that it might be one of the strongest tools in promoting a true understanding of what city life really means.  Sharing a laugh with our fellow man or woman, regardless of our differences.  Hearing stories of inspiration from someone we might otherwise judge unjustly.  These are the building blocks of true urban understanding and appreciation, and I for one am better for it.

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