I was a very early user of Uber: I discovered it during an Apple Developer Conference week in San Francisco in 2010, when Uber was still in “beta”; some of the famous after-parties were using it to get developers to their often-obscure locations. As soon as it came to New York the next year, I signed up.
In the beginning Uber was a terrific alternative to the radio-dispatched town car problem in the city: for years we had struggled with poor service from a half dozen of these companies, which act as a high-end competitor to the ubiquitous yellow taxi fleet. Both of these services tend to fail when, for example, the weather turns foul or during rush hour: taxis can’t be found, and radio dispatchers either don’t answer the phone or get pickup instructions wrong. Too many times we had drivers stop at a different address or even a different street, leaving us without any information about what had happened and no way to reach them. The Uber app solved all that: no phone to call, no dispatcher to screw things up, and an easy way to track the car and reach the driver. We loved it.
We also loved the quality of the cars and drivers in the first couple of years. Most of the time the cars were town cars and the drivers were professionals. They knew the city, the traffic, and were well-dressed and was to deal with. I would routinely ask each driver about his opinion of the company, and they were without exception very pleased.
I first noted a change when we booked an Uber car in Washington a year later. The driver had no idea where we wanted to go, and I ended up having to direct him through the entire route. I suspected that he had never driven a car for hire before, and it planted a tiny warning sign in my mind. By this time, Uber was already rapidly expanding throughout the US and into Europe, and catching the attention of the private equity investor market. Several of my friends bought private equity positions, convinced that the inevitable IPO would be ginormous. Yet even then, stories were emerging about problem drivers and municipal resistance. I had doubts about the wisdom of taking a stock position myself, and passed on two different opportunities.
Since then, of course, the company’s problems have become well-known. Numerous lawsuits have been filed, the founder has been forced out, and numerous municipalities have banned the service entirely. Just in the past few weeks, London canceled its license. To some degree this is a predicted consequence of being such a disruptive alternative to existing transportation services; and stresses and strains from such rapid growth often lead to boardroom battles (such is the famous one in which Steve jobs was forced out of Apple).
But what I have noticed, to a greater and greater degree, is the slow decline in the quality assurance assurance of the company. More and more, drivers are amateurs, cars are dirty, drivers cancel bookings without warning or show up at the wrong location. Worse, the original fleet of town cars has been replaced by either SUVs or compact cars. Neither of these is suitable to an urban transportation fleet: the SUVs are difficult for older passengers to enter and exit, and compact cars can only carry two passengers comfortably, especially if they have any luggage. In other words, to my surprise, Uber now is actually less suitable in many cases than a regular yellow taxi.