Monday, June 13, 2016

The Fall of Uber: Paul Simon and Sloan

In my previous post, I alluded to some issues that have arisen surrounding my life in Austin.  A big one is the rising cost of living.  Since we have moved into our house on the hill, my little family has lived just at the edge (if not just a little beyond) our means.  Life in Austin has continued to become more and more expensive, and the climate of the city does not seem in the least bit concerned.  The general public walks around the town with dollar signs in their eyes, constantly jabbering into the air about investments, entrepreneurship, and start-ups.  Meanwhile, we teachers sometimes struggle to find space in our financial plans to get healthy groceries into the fridge.  To try to do something about this latter issue, I spent some of my evenings last summer driving for Uber.  Very often, a late evening spent driving around on the weekend would produce our grocery money for the following week.

There are, of course, tales to tell of my Uber encounters, but by and large the experience was not particularly eventful.  I picked up my passengers, made conversation if it seemed that they were the type, stayed quiet if they were not, and dropped them off as quickly and efficiently as possible.  I maintained good ratings, which is all-important to the Uber driver, but I probably could have had more success if I had added some bells and whistles.  I was not the kind of serious driver that would provide water and gum for their clients - or an auxiliary cable for them to hijack my car stereo.

That just seemed wrong.

Being that I was generally sensitive to the ears of the public, the vast majority of passengers did not care.  In fact, the CD in the player generated conversation and provided the impetus for discussions that I could invest in.  I did find people’s reactions to my selections to be an unending source of interest.  Although I could usually rely on Deadmau5 and other nondescript electronica as my go-to, one evening I was feeling a bit selfish and decided to slip in Paul Simon’s greatest hits compilation Negotiations and Love Songs.  I was pleasantly surprised by the positive feedback.  One particularly silent client even went so far as to thank me for providing a “musical experience” that evening. Negotiations and Love Songs evolved into a consistent crowd pleaser, and reminded me that no matter how much Paul Simon you happen to be listening to, it's probably not enough.  


Of course, I was not always so accommodating.  I avoided the avant-garde, but my Uber experiences did give me some space to indulge in lesser known but still accessible artists.  With so much driving time, there were many recordings that came to define "Uber-ing," but none more than Sloan’s The Double Cross.   I was a fan of Sloan’s 1998 release Navy Blues, but it played its role for me back then and I did not follow them further.  I finally followed up with The Double Cross last summer, and it was a constant presence in the player.  Many passengers reacted positively towards it, and the more musically minded of them enjoyed discussing Sloan’s long history and perceived influences.

As the summer drew to a close and the new school year started ramping up, I decided that in the long run, Uber was not really worth it from a financial standpoint.  It could provide some easy cash on a week-to-week basis, but when gas and taxes were figured in it seemed I was barely breaking even.  It was still a nice option to have, however, just in case I did need a little extra cash.

But that is no longer possible.  Earlier this year, fears about passenger safety led the City of Austin to propose required fingerprinting for all Uber drivers. Keep in mind, Uber already had its own background check system in place, and certainly, a few nutjobs could have slipped through.  In my experience, however, the vast majority of Uber drivers were people just like me - hardworking people who were just trying to make ends meet in any way they could.

I personally didn't care about fingerprinting. I have nothing to hide.  Uber, however, did not want to comply with this proposition, stating that such checks would be prohibitively expensive and, perhaps more importantly, an unacceptable government regulation.  When put to a vote, the city’s proposition won and Uber left town rather than complying with the new policy.  Then the whole city started complaining about losing the service.

Sound dumb?  It was.

It is no secret that the cab companies hated the Uber service, and without a doubt it was their lobbying that pushed the image of the sex-crazed Uber felon to the forefront of the argument.  The reality was that negative incidents were extremely few and far between, and generally not any worse than having a bad waiter.  It was yet another example of an uninformed minority making decisions for the majority.  It seemed like there was no way it would pass.

But it did, and I suspect that Uber’s campaign to defeat the proposition was partially its undoing.  I was cold called by the company no less than five times in an attempt to secure my vote.  By the time the polls opened, I was so annoyed by their constant spamming that even I was waffling on my position.  Certainly other less invested people would have been reluctant to support such a pushy company.  If Uber would have saved the money they spent on securing the public and instead just complied with the fingerprinting regulation, we might still be able to use the service to get around.

Now, due to stupidity on all sides, we don’t have it at all - another glaring example of what has gone wrong with Austin.  Don’t misunderstand, I am not leaving Austin because Uber got shut down.  Austin has become the kind of place, however, in which an out-of-touch elite makes decisions that impact the average person in ways that he or she cannot counteract.  That is not the place that I grew up in - or particularly want to live.

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