No Fixed Abode: A Tale of Three Ubers

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth
no fixed abode a tale of three ubers

If you weren’t at Desert Generator, you missed out. By the time I pulled my rented Indian Roadmaster up to Pappy and Harriet’s out in Pioneertown, a couple hundred vans had already shown up — so many that a significant percentage of the Pioneertown parking ended up being used as an overflow area. The vanners came from as far away as Calgary to show off their meticulously restored and upgraded rides. There were murals, carpeted interiors, lava lamps, and outrageous candy-color paint schemes as far as the eye could see.

There were also a remarkable number of very fine-looking women, contrary to some predictions on the part of the B&B. Don’t believe me? You can see for yourself. Bonus points to anybody who can find me in there, as well. It was a good time, made even better for me by my decision to duck out of some of the louder parts of the concert to grab a filet at the Ruth’s Chris in Palm Desert.

Since this is The Truth About Cars, I won’t bore you with a panegyric to the mighty force of motorcycling nature known as the Indian Roadmaster. Instead, I’ll talk about the three Uber trips I took this weekend. Together, they paint an interesting picture of the “gig economy” and the future of mobility.

Trip Uber Select From LAX To Redondo Beach.

Starting in January, Uber can now pick up fares from LAX. But there’s a catch: they have to pick you up from “Departures” on the second level. As you’d expect, there are all sorts of Uber drivers, in all the various categories, milling around right outside the airport waiting for a call. For my trip to my hotel in Redondo Beach, I chose Uber Select. Two reasons for that: I didn’t feel like squeezing into a Prius C, and I’d never tried the “Select” variant of Uber.

When the app told me to look for a Lexus ES, I was briefly annoyed. “What’s the point of paying double the fare,” I griped to my date, “if I have to ride in some fucked-up old ES300?” But I was wrong. Comitas, the driver, had a brand-new hybrid ES. The ride was pleasant and reasonably quick; I don’t think Comitas is ever going to win the Wayne Gerdes Award for doing 47 miles per hour on the freeway while school buses full of children swerve around you and burst into flames. The “energy meter” on the dashboard wasn’t in “Charging” very often. I find it fascinating that the hybrid ES, by default, offers much less information to the driver about what the Synergy Drive is doing than the Prius does.

Total cost of the ride was about what I’d have paid for a taxi.

Pluses: The ES was quiet and smooth and brand-new. Comitas was rapid but sane behind the wheel.

Minuses: Far more expensive than UberX.

Trip UberX from Redondo Beach to Eaglerider La Cienega

It’s always a bad sign when the little headshot of your Uber driver looks like it was taken in a Juarez prison at the conclusion of a prison riot. But it’s worse when the Uber app is too stupid to understand where you truly are. It placed my pickup point about half a mile from the hotel lobby where I was sitting. Luckily, after some stilted conversation on the phone, Carlos realized where I was and made his way over to me. It took nearly 35 minutes from the time I called for a ride to the moment when his battered 12-year-old Tahoe arrived in the circular drive outside the hotel.

The photo didn’t lie: Carlos was a frightening-looking dude. His Tahoe was an utter and complete piece of shit. He also had a singular disregard for lane discipline, signaling before turning, or any other of the finer points of road usage. But he was a nice guy and he was very kind to my female companion, who was suffering from a little jet lag and a general headache. I gave Carlos five stars, even though it definitely wasn’t a five-star ride, because I felt bad for him. There’s no way that driving a Tahoe for UberX works out financially. I assume he’s doing it short-term because he really needs the money. The five-star rating was a way of trying to give him a hand up.

Pluses: cheaper than the same ride down in a Lexus.

Minuses: took forever, feared for my life.

Trip UberX from Eaglerider to LAX

My rental Indian Roadmaster and I put 437 miles under our wheels in just 23 hours, which included an overnight in an Airstream and a brief stop at the Luftgekuhlt event in downtown LA the following morning. I was really sorry to see it go. Have I mentioned how much I enjoyed the Roadmaster? It will do 90 mph in light rain like it ain’t no thing. And you can even ride it on dirt roads. Kinda. Be prepared to hold the 900-pound bike up with one leg or another with very short notice when the front end slides out.

My total satisfaction with Eaglerider has just one little exception: even though the La Cienega location is the “airport Eaglerider,” there’s no airport shuttle. Enter Uber driver #3. This was a fellow after my own heart: a 32-year-old Asian car enthusiast driving — wait for it — a stick-shift Jetta GLI.

We talked about all sorts of stuff during the short drive: his experiences owning an S2000 and a couple of tuned-up Civic Si coupes, his favorite sports cars, his opinion of Motor Trend’s YouTube channel. He was a really nice guy and I think he’s just driving Uber for kicks on the weekend. He said he’s going to keep his 2012 GLI until it dies. He’s already replaced the turbo once, but as a VW fanatic he’s not overly bothered by this fact.

Pluses: fast, cheap, very pleasant.

Minuses: none.

Overall, I was pleased with my Los Angeles Uber experience. Compared to a taxi, two of the three rides were manifestly cleaner and more pleasant. All three trips together cost about half as much as I’d have paid to rent even the cheapest car and park it at the hotel overnight. With that said, of course my experience was pleasant: I was the customer. We live in the “gig economy” now. The corporation is king, the customer is pampered, and the employee is expected to simultaneously display tireless loyalty to his employer and expect nothing in return but the abject terror of knowing that he is disposable, replaceable, and valueless. Uber makes the predatory medallion-holders of New York City’s taxi kakistocracy look like benevolent philosopher kings. After all, taxi drivers don’t have to maintain their own cars. And you can tip them easily. And they can’t be fired on a whim if they get two four-out-of-five-star ratings in a single day.

Uber is a new kind of predatory capitalism in which the capitalists don’t even own the capital, but they still manage to get all of the profit. I feel genuinely bad for using the service. I have to believe that there’s a way to open-source the Uber concept, to create the equivalent of Craigslist for Uber rides and have the vast majority of the funds to go the drivers themselves. I’ll have to work on that as soon as I do all the other things on my very long to-do list. In the meantime, if you’re interested in getting a unique and intelligent perspective on the life of an Uber driver, I’d suggest you check out Up In The Valley.

I’d also suggest you check out the Indian Roadmaster. Have I mentioned it yet?

[Image: Top, Jason Tester Guerrilla Futures/Flickr]

Join the conversation
3 of 124 comments
  • UpintheValley UpintheValley on Apr 15, 2016

    I'm the blogger/Uber driver known as UpintheValley, referenced in the article. I read Jack's account of the three Uber rides, as well as the thoughtful follow-on discussion in the comments, with great interest. From the driver's perspective, the difficulties of the Uber business model, contra certain readers assumption, are not the classic Marxist ones. You either feeling like driving on a given night or not. The hourly earnings rate either works for you, or it doesn't. Free will governs. However....there's a lot of driver churn in Los Angeles, hence the perpetual ads on radio for fresh ones. I have an idea why. In the earlier going of my Uber career, it felt much more like "rideshare" than it does today. There was a joyful collaboration between rider and driver. They get picked up in under five minutes for half the price of a cab, I make some easy cash. We're in it together, and we both win. A mutually rewarding exchange. As the novelty has worn off, or to put it another way, as Uber has reached ubiquity in urban areas, attitudes have shifted. My car is now seen as the extension of someone else's phone, and is expected to be a limousine, in Prius form. A limo for which people expect to pay UberPOOL prices. And by limo, I mean people expect to be catered to. They want you to double park in front of a club on a Sat. night while they make their goodbyes to their friends inside. For five minutes. In a bus lane. While dozens of people are crowded on the sidewalk flagging down other Ubers and valet parkers wave flashlights at you. Riders refuse to walk a hundred feet up the block where there is an easy pickup spot. Or cross the street, if it would spare both of us ten minutes of idling in traffic. "That's why I take Uber. So I can be picked up at the door." The real Uber money in LA is night work, so this is an escapable part of the job now. In the past, if I had a drop off in the clusterf**k that is West Hollywood, I could just turn the app off when I was done, drive out of the neighborhood, then turn it back on again. No more. The Uber app now sends new rider requests before the first ride is finished, and it appears as a small icon on the screen without a visible address, so you're in the position of "accepting blind." If you decline, the app will send two more inside of a minute, forcing your hand. A low acceptance rate will get you booted from the app. In theory, anyway. People also expect your car to be immaculate. Like a limo. My car is free of personal clutter, always has an air freshener, and I wash the windows before each night's driving. That doesn't prevent people from making passive-aggresive comments, like noting the scuff mark on the ceiling from a bicycle I had transported during my non-Uber life. This from a woman I picked up in Brentwood in under two minutes and whisked to her front door, eight miles away, for the price of valet parking. Therein lies the tension of the Uber business model, the mismatch in expectations being sold: to the driver, ridesharing; to the rider, concierge service. Hence, the churn.

    • Jack Baruth Jack Baruth on Apr 15, 2016

      Hey man thanks for reading and for the very informative comment!

  • -Nate -Nate on Apr 16, 2016

    Whew ~ Great thread with really good comments , it took me a while to read everything with the links and all . Jack , I think you're supposed to move or change between the photos..... =8-) . -Nate

  • Lou_BC "Owners of affected Wrangles" Does a missing "r" cancel an extra stud?
  • Slavuta One can put a secret breaker that will disable the starter or spark plug supply. Even disabling headlights or all lights will bring more trouble to thieves than they wish for. With no brake lights, someone will hit from behind, they will leave fingerprints inside. Or if they steal at night, they will have to drive with no lights. Any of these things definitely will bring attention.I remember people removing rotor from under distributor cup.
  • Slavuta Government Motors + Government big tech + government + Federal police = fascist surveillance state. USSR surveillance pales...
  • Johnster Another quibble, this time about the contextualization of the Thunderbird and Cougar, and their relationship to the prestigious Continental Mark. (I know. It's confusing.) The Thunderbird/Mark IV platform introduced for the 1971 model year was apparently derived from the mid-sized Torino/Montego platform (also introduced for the 1971 model year), but should probably be considered different from it.As we all know, the Cougar shared its platform with the Ford Mustang up through the 1973 model year, moving to the mid-sized Torino/Montego platform for the 1974 model year. This platform was also shared with the failed Ford Gran Torino Elite, (introduced in February of 1974, the "Gran Torino" part of the name was dropped for the 1975 and 1976 model years).The Thunderbird/Mark series duo's separation occurred with the 1977 model year when the Thunderbird was downsized to share a platform with the LTD II/Cougar. The 1977 model year saw Mercury drop the "Montego" name and adopt the "Cougar" name for all of their mid-sized cars, including plain 2-doors, 4-doors and and 4-door station wagons. Meanwhile, the Cougar PLC was sold as the "Cougar XR-7." The Cougar wagon was dropped for the 1978 model year (arguably replaced by the new Zephyr wagon) while the (plain) 2-door and 4-door models remained in production for the 1978 and 1979 model years. It was a major prestige blow for the Thunderbird. Underneath, the Thunderbird and Cougar XR-7 for 1977 were warmed-over versions of the failed Ford Elite (1974-1976), while the Mark V was a warmed-over version of the previous Mark IV.
  • Stuart de Baker This is depressing, and I don't own one of these.