When I moved to Los Angeles in late 2019, many were surprised to hear that I wasn’t planning to buy a car—at least not immediately. It’s been nearly two years and I still don’t have one, though the itch to do so has gotten stronger.
Pre-pandemic was the golden age of riding with Uber and Lyft. I could get across the sprawling city for $15, and less if I was just going a few miles. It never felt too painfully pricey because of the pooled ride-sharing options, which brought the cost down to $6 or $7. I daresay it felt like a deal quite often. And if I was in a rush, I could spend the extra few bucks to get there quickly.
Drivers were plentiful, and because of competition, the downward pressure on pricing was to every riders’ benefit.
Today, things are very different.
The quality of the experience has gotten worse while the cost has ballooned.
Uber and Lyft now feel, as businesses financially as well as operationally, much less sustainable—for a few key reasons:
- Average pricing has increased. Now, to go 3 miles to my barber (each way), it costs between $12 and $20, depending on the time of the day—and on Uber & Lyft’s proprietary algorithms. That means my $30 haircut becomes nearly $70 with rides to and from. Not exactly a deal.
- Reliability has deteriorated. Many times, drivers are sparse, so the back and forth matching between riders looking for rides and drivers accepting rides is more drawn out. Even the apps’ scheduled rides (e.g. to the airport early in the morning) or “wait 15 minutes for lower prices” options have periodically left me without any ride at all. When drivers do confirm, they’re more than 10 minutes away, finishing another ride first.
- Safety is questionable. Though all automobile driving and riding presents an inherent risk (riskier than say, flying in an airplane), many of the drivers I’ve had with both Uber and Lyft have driven recklessly, had a hard time navigating (I know my way around LA better now than many do, and I don’t have a car!), or have cars that strike me as death traps—too old, too small, too many miles and lots of dashboard warning lights.
- Cities and airports are restricting how and where Uber and Lyft can operate. LAX now makes travelers walk to a designated area to catch their car—a maze of crossings and designated lanes and written or verbal directions…when all you want to do is get in a car and get home.
- Neither Uber nor Lyft has found a way to add value and differentiate. To most people I know, the two are interchangeable, and the only reason to pick one over the other is pricing.
These are issues as observed from the rider’s point of view; I imagine the experience is more nuanced on the driver’s side. The pandemic has changed protocols, increased the health risk of working as a driver, and because of higher prices, I would imagine riders are tipping less than before, if at all.
So that whole California Prop 22 debate over classifying drivers as employees or contractors, for any gig-type service, to me, is still unfinished. Uber and Lyft may have realized their preferred outcome, but they are at the mercy of drivers who need to make enough money to continue driving (i.e. not have a better “make money when you want” option), and a user base that will continue to demand their services even though the experience is mediocre at best.
OH—and pandemic aside, the environmental-friendliness of ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft also remains murky. Do they add to congestion in big cities, or help moderate it? The latter can only be true if a majority of those trips are being made by people who would otherwise be driving alone in their cars—which isn’t necessarily always the case.
What are the options for Uber and Lyft and others in the space?
I recently tried Alto, which is a Uber Black-type service. Drivers and cars are more stringently vetted, and the experience feels more “white glove,” but the prices are definitely not competitive. Is it worth an up-charge to have a bit more safety, reliability, and “luxury”? For me on a regular basis, no.
There’s also Opoli, which I also tried once but haven’t since. The in-app navigation seemed to be confusing the driver, so my pick-up and drop-off were clunky.
Maybe a membership option, whereby the apps get a guaranteed monthly stream of income and users get some sort of pricing discount or ride prioritization. This could be the option that would snap many users into some loyalty toward one app or the other, and that could provide some reliable economies of scale for both companies.
I’m headed to New Orleans tomorrow for a long weekend, and am tempted to arrange a taxi, old school style, to pick me up, rather than bothering with Uber and Lyft.
Given the regulations and licensing required to drive a taxi, which makes the overall service experience more standardized and reliable, it almost makes better sense to me that someone should figure out a way to do taxis on demand, like Uber and Lyft, with the added benefit of properly-maintained vehicles, background-checked and licensed drivers, and the peace of mind that when you need a taxi to be there, it will be.
I miss the best days of ride-sharing, because it allowed me to easily and comfortably live in Los Angeles without a car (and forgo associated expenses). Whether that state of being returns is still T-B-D.