Walk into any McDonald’s in the world and, other than some localized decorations and special menu items, it’s essentially the same thing as any other: same burgers, same fries, same macronutrient (im)balance, same standards of cleanliness and speed of service. That’s the goal, anyway, and our expectations of globalized services of this kind can be summarized in one word: consistency. Well, having spent the better part of a week in Silicon Valley to cover Google I/O, let me tell you, Uber is not one of these consistent operators. Not even close.
In my native Europe, hailing a ride via Uber takes a few minutes. This makes sense, because not every car on the road is an Uber driver, and not every Uber driver is free to respond to my whims. In Palo Alto, on other hand, Ubers arrive within seconds. Same for San Francisco, which seems to have completely abandoned the concept of conventional taxis in favor of a fleet of supposedly self-employed Uberinos. It’s simultaneously bewildering and seductive.
Seductive because it’s a frightfully responsive, almost instant, service, the likes of which I’d never previously experienced. I can see why people stick with it, even through all the awfulness of its internal culture and the boorish behavior of its CEO. Though my experience was only anecdotal, the extreme nature of what I saw was striking. Seeing Uber operating in its native environment, I witnessed small groups of two or three people systematically jumping into unmarked cars on every San Francisco street corner. I’m willing to bet that at a not insubstantial proportion of Silicon Valley productivity has grown dependent on Uber as the primary means of transportation.
Sitting in my home office in London, I was one of the people scratching his head at Uber’s stratospheric, multibillion-dollar valuation at a time when the company is still losing money at a scary rate. But now that I’m here in the extraordinarily wealthy tech capital of the world, observing how instrumental Uber has become to people’s lives, I get it. I absolutely don’t agree with it, and I’m not at all proud to still be using Uber myself, but I can understand why Uber is valued so highly by the people residing in Silicon Valley. This, the ultimate in bubble communities, receives and appreciates an Uber service that is alien to the rest of us.
The bewildering part, of course, has to do with the sheer amount of human resources required to make something like this work. You’d need an army of drivers, working around the clock, to be able to meet the ever-rising expectations of commuters in Silicon Valley. And it seems like that’s what Uber has. The technology is certainly no different, I’m still using the same app that I’ve used in practically every European capital, but the speed is an order of magnitude greater. I don’t know how anyone else feels about this, but it makes me a little queasy to think that there are that many people tasked with the mindless job of ferrying privileged tech types around.
Though I’ve been most perturbed by the stark disparity between the European and American Uber experience, that’s not to say that there aren’t differences on a more local level as well. Denmark has kicked Uber out, Portugal, Spain, and Italy have set up an anti-Uber taxi alliance, and hailing an Uber in Switzerland is a borderline illegal affair. I can’t catch an Uber in Barcelona, it’s a little tricky in Berlin, but I can find one quite easily in London or Paris.
I don’t know that there’s any great moral to this story, other than the observation that complex things can and do vary with geographies and cultures. Perhaps if Uber would commit to treating its drivers as employees, it could institute more universal standards — both of availability and quality of service, which is also all over the place — but the company seems likely to develop driverless cars sooner than it admits to that.
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