I hailed my last Uber ride in November 2014. That was the month the company took what we would now think of as a Trump-like turn, with a bizarrely self-sabotaging threat by one of its top executives to spend $1 million investigating the private life of a female journalist who’d raised questions about the company.<
“Nobody would know it was us,” new senior VP Emil Michael said at an on-the-record dinner with journalists in Manhattan. When CEO Travis Kalanick declined to even reprimand Michael, I wrote a widely-shared story about reluctantly deleting the profoundly useful Uber app, and another about my first day of using its then-obscure rival Lyft.
Fast forward two-and-a-half years, and a lot of water has suddenly rushed under the bridge. Uber finally parted ways with Michael on Monday; it took an investigation by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to oust him. On Tuesday, Kalanick took a leave of absence, supposedly to reflect on his failings and to work on “Kalanick 2.0.” The company didn’t release Holder’s damning report in full, but it did post a list of his recommendations that the board has vowed to adopt.
So the original purpose of my boycott, to punish Michael and Kalanick for their Nixonian attack on a free press, is pretty much null and void at this stage. Is it time to give the company a second chance? Should I stick the Uber app, with its strange new backwards-C logo, back on my phone?
I’m likely not the only one pondering that question right now. More than 200,000 users deleted Uber in anger back in February, after the company appeared to take financial advantage of a taxi strike at JFK during the anti-Trump travel ban protests.
The pressure worked, at least in the sense that Kalanick withdrew from Trump’s advisory council. But having deleted Uber and switched to Lyft, many of those users discovered what I discovered: Lyft is a more-than-adequate replacement. (New Yorkers have another splendid ride-sharing app alternative, Juno.)
And yet … I won’t lie, there have been times I missed Uber. As abhorrent as the company is, it does have a significantly larger reach. Lyft is available in 300 cities, all of them in the U.S.; Uber drivers can be found in 600 cities in 81 countries and counting.
There are fewer Lyft drivers overallwhen it takes a Lyft guy 15 minutes to reach my East Bay Area home, and I’m running late for a flight, I’m often insanely curious about whether the same would be true on Uber.
(The closest I came to reinstalling Uber was while standing in the rain outside a North London Tube station one night, with not a black cab in sight. Lyft doesn’t operate in London. In the end a friend called one from his app for me; that breach of the spirit of the boycott left me feeling dirty for days afterwards.)
I would love it if Uber became a service I could use with a clean conscience. For one thing, “uber” has pretty much become the default verb for ordering a car from an app, even among the extremely woke residents of the Bay Area. “Oh, did you uber over here?” a friend will ask. “Lyft,” I’ll correct them, sounding like the worst kind of nit-picking hipster.
And hey, it isn’t like Lyft has entirely clean hands.
And hey, it isn’t like Lyft has entirely clean hands. Like Uber, it has cut driver pay in a race for profits. Trump supporter Peter Thiel is a major investor (then again, if you boycotted every Silicon Valley company for which that was true, you’d have to quit Facebook).
Lyft does give its drivers a slightly higher cut of each ridethey earn $17.50 an hour on average compared to $15.68 an hour with Uber, according to a survey released in January. That’s not nothing. Lyft also asks users to drop an extra tip, on top of the one that’s built in, on a screen with their face that gives you pink balloons if you cough up.
It’s a heartstring-tugging deviceisn’t the point of ride-sharing apps that the user doesn’t have to think about money?that I have learned to love.
But Lyft also had to be sued by the state of California before it would stop simply firing drivers at will. The company had to pay $12 million in that settlement. And of course you could argue that both companies are helping to destroy millions of safe jobs (with benefits, something even Lyft drivers can only dream about) in the taxi industry.
Bottom line: in the ride-sharing business, no one’s hands are clean.
Using that argument to justify returning to Uber, however, would be the worst kind of whataboutismTrump and Putin’s favorite propaganda tactic. Saying “they’re both bad, so who cares” is almost as inaccurate when you’re talking ride-sharing companies as when it is applied to presidential candidates.
Uber still has a serious problem embedded deep in its macho, self-destructive, take-no-prisoners culture; every time we get a peek behind the curtain at the company’s inner workings, it’s like Wolf of Wall Street in there.
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It’s like Wolf of Wall Street in there
That much was abundantly clear Tuesday when board member David Bonderman made a casually sexist joke at the precise moment it had the worst possible impact: during an all-hands company meeting as Arianna Huffington was talking about the need to get more than one woman on the board.
Bonderman promptly resigned his post, but one wonders what would have happened had audio of the all-hands not leaked. The fact that he even thought he’d find a receptive audience for the joke suggests sexism is a root-and-branch problem at Uber.
If you find yourself on the App Store with your thumb hovering over the download button, remember this: the company has lost multiple executives since employees started coming forward with accusations sexual harassment. Remember that Uber still faces multiple lawsuits in multiple cities that it could have been avoided simply by playing nice. Remember it has claimed the righteven on occasion boasted about its abilityto peek into your riding behavior.
It doesn’t stop there. One executive has been accused of obtaining the medical records of a woman who was sexually assaulted in an Uber. Another was fired because he neglected to disclose harassment charges against him in his previous role at Google.
There are many more: all male, all departing under mysterious circumstances. With or without Kalanick, it’s hard to avoid the impression that Uber has become a safe space for abhorrent behavior. Kalanick’s leave of absence won’t fix that. As Lyft executive Gina Ma told the Guardian earlier this year, “culture is something you can’t reverse engineer.”
So no, I will not be ending my Uber boycott. I’m sticking with Lyft, and I recommend that you do the same. The company is going to have to spend a significant amount of timeperhaps years, perhaps foreverparked on the naughty step.