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Category Archives: Uber

Uber continues to cause trouble in Montreal. According to this article at Hacker News (translated from the French) the Canadian government raided Uber last week in Montreal under suspicion that the company is violating tax laws by not collecting Goods and Services Tax (GST) and Quebec Sales Tax (QST) on behalf of its drivers to UberX. Seemingly in response, Uber remotely encrypted the data. I’m not sure exactly what is going on here or who is being shady. Is this an attempt by the Canadian government to urge Uber to vacate the province or does Uber have something to hide? Regardless, it is yet an other skirmish in the war of disruptive technology.

Despite the slings, arrows, and horror stories about AirBnB drug orgies and looming threats of unrestrained hyper-capitalism many of us have chosen to help make ends meet by bravely wading into the shark infested waters of the sharing economy. My friends, I myself and one of them. Earlier this winter, like many American, I found myself strapped for cash and in need of some extra money at the end of the month. Having just bought a new (to me) car I figured an easy way to do that would be driving for Uber. My motivations weren’t entirely fiscal, however. Being a bit of a digital sociologist and having studied the ways new technology disrupts the old I wanted to get a view of the sharing economy from the trenches themselves. I started driving for Uber in March of this year. The sign up process wasn’t what I’d call simple but Uber’s UI made it feel very streamlined. I had to verify my license, registration, car insurance, and pass a background check (which I’ll get into in an other post). Once done, I e-signed my contract with Uber and was able to hit the streets. I live in Portland, Maine where Uber is a relatively new thing. When I started, I had some expectations of how the service would be used and I couldn’t have been more wrong. Here’s the break down.

This was probably the only area where the service met my expectations. Peak hours here in Portland, Maine are Fridays and Saturdays between 8pm and 3am. In larger, less sleepy cities where demand is higher I imagine you can work 24/y with the evening and weekend hours being peak hours though I also imagine there are different classes of people using the service or different types of use. I’m sure you can pick up some fares during the day and if I didn’t already have a full-time gig I would do so, but my limited experiments with trolling for fares during the day met with no results (though admittedly I only went online a couple of times and I wasn’t downtown). I happen to have Fridays and Saturdays off so I usually hit the streets right about the time everyone finishes dinner and starts looking for a ride elsewhere.

According to a friend, who owns a B&B in the West End and has been driving for Uber part-time since they first expanded here, demand has increasingly grown particularly from people from away (as we refer to out of staters here) from cities where Uber is more established. As word spreads demand from locals increases as well. In my (somewhat limited) experience, I largely ferry white, college-age or just post-college millennials, and a smattering of younger and/or tech savvy Gen Xers who are either going to the bars or an even or are coming home from the bars or an even (depending on the hour). I’d estimate my age range is 21 to 35.

When I started I expected to shuttle people from the the outlying Portland metropolitan area to the airport but so far I’ve done zero airport runs. Requests for trips come largely from the from Portland’s peninsula with a focus on downtown and the West End. Early in the evening fares want to go downtown or to the Old Port. I hadn’t given much thought about the age range but in retrospect I don’t think it is a surprise to anyone. The where, however, did surprise me a little. Not that I begrudge the fares by any means but in my day, if I may indulge my inner old man for a second, we just walked. I grew up in the Portland area and when I lived here in my youth most of my friends were around my customer’s age and we mostly walked. Maybe if something was way on the East End we wouldn’t but we always walked from the my friend’s State Street apartment to the Old Port or to Baxter Blvd. or wherever we were going to hang out or do. I always thought that one of the greatest aspects of Portland, Maine was your ability to walk or bike anywhere (weather permitting). If you were/are lucky enough to live and work on the peninsula then you rarely needed a care unless you were getting out of town or going off the peninsula. No so today. The majority of my fares are within the $5-$7 range which means these are people who are moving around downtown not going to and from the outlying areas of Portland or its suburbs (as I had suspected it would be).

The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly
Part of what interests me about Uber is the fact that I get to witness disruptive technology first hand. As an undergrad, this was something I read about constantly from writers like Tim Wu or John Zittrain. The epic struggles of the communications companies in the twentieth century filled my reading lists. Services like Uber and Lyft are disrupting the way transportation is handled. This kind of clash between technology, culture, and the market are always messy and more than a little confusing, and Uber isn’t making thing any less contentious.

It seems to me here’s a lot of crying wolf going on. Sure, taxis are complaining that Uber is poaching or operating illegally but that’s just a smokescreen they are using to figure out a way to suppress the start up. Uber, on the other hand, rightly argues that the taxi cab system is antiquated, but all the while, ignores how some of its business antics or its service model may impact the U.S. job market. Needless to say, the public good isn’t the driver behind either side, but I’m not so quick as to label either side of the issue as evil. Clearly, given Uber’s growth since its inception in 2012, it is providing a useful service to both customers and drivers, but its unclear what the impact of Uber’s introduction into the market has had on it, particularly its UberX service- the low-priced option under which I’m currently employed (Uber offers several services from taxi to SUVs to luxury cars). So in future posts I’ll be exploring the ups and downs of driving, the impact it has personally, locally and nationally, and examine the ways in which Uber’s impact has been a positive or negative on the various aspects of culture that it touches. In the mean time ride on, speed racer.