A skeptic's ode to Uber

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on June 30, 2014

From The News Desk

Of all the companies I’ve covered in my time at Pando, by far I have lobbed the most crap at Uber. It was perfectly deserved, reporting that needed to be done on their shoddy background check practices, the gaps in their insurance coverage, the way they treat passengers who have been assaulted and reporters who are trying to uncover the truth.

I threw crap at Uber because I believe it’s one of the most important startups in Silicon Valley right now, and it needs to be held accountable for its failings and misgivings. After all, it’s transforming transportation while regulatory bodies attempt haphazardly to catch up. There cannot be enough critical eyes on it, making sure all the safety gaps get filled.

For anyone who feels like Uber gets a raw deal, I suppose this story is for you.

In San Francisco, it is so very easy to take Uber — and Lyft — for granted. They are there whenever I need them, and when they’re not, Flywheel is not a half bad fallback. The ubiquity of the platform and its sustained presence in the area makes it easy to forget just what a fantastically annoying problem Uber has solved.

Visiting Pittsburgh on Wednesday, while covering Steve Case’s Rise of the Rest tour, I was reminded of that.

We pull into Pittsburgh on the bus at 1 am. It is humid, sticky, and rainy. We lug backpacks and suitcases. The streets are deserted. The team hails a cab and asks it to wait a few minutes so we can grab our luggage. It drives away thirty seconds later, ignoring the shouts of a Revolution team member chasing it down.

The rest of the group decides to walk, but my (different) hotel is twenty minutes away so I need a cab. I wait on the corner, and wait, and wait. I walk to a different corner and wait some more. The town is desolate. The cabs are non-existent.

Finally I enter the nearby Westin where the lobby attendee helpfully calls me a cab, warning, “The taxi will leave if you’re not outside the second it pulls up.” Fabulous.

“How long will it take to get here?”

“Hard to say,” he said. “Could be ten minutes. Could be twenty. Might not show up at all if someone else hails it on the way.”

I step outside to wait in the humid sticky rain for this cab that may or may not ever arrive depending on the driver’s predilections.

And in that moment I think, “God what I wouldn’t give for an Uber ride right now.”

Low and behold, I open up the app and discover Uber, in fact, has expanded to Pittsburgh. I shouldn’t be surprised, Kalanick world domination and all that. I click the familiar button, see a car ten minutes away, and sigh in relief as it accepts my request.

All this is a roundabout way to say what everyone knows but is sometimes easy to forget living in San Francisco: Uber fixed an old and broken system. Yes, it has some serious, life-threatening problems it needs to fix STAT. Given all the recent alleged assaults, it’s clear Uber’s “expanded background checks” are not exactly top notch. They stubbornly still won’t roll out the Live Scan approach like taxi companies use.

But hopefully, the company will get its head out of its ass when it comes to such safety measures, and continue to be a symbol of the best of what Silicon Valley has to offer. Disruption that changes the way we live for the better.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]