Is Uber evil?
The high-tech paradox arrives in Sacramento—on little red bikes
The Jump bikes had just arrived. Earlier in the week we’d seen a bunch of them docked at McKinley Park, just a few blocks from our apartment. On Saturday, hot and a little bored, we walked over to the park and downloaded the app, only to find that the handful of bikes there were apparently already reserved.
No problem; the app showed that two were available on R Street. We hailed an Uber, and 14 minutes later we were on the bikes and off toward Land Park.
Riding Jump’s electric-assist bike is just mildly exhilarating, but that’s enough to paste a smile on your face. Even though at top speed it’s not much faster than a regular bicycle, the acceleration as you take off from a stop sign is a little bit of a thrill. It’s easy fun, too. Only an athlete would work up a sweat riding one of these bikes.
This, I thought, will be the thing that gets people out of their cars. Fun—hell yeah—but more importantly, this is another blow against the fossil-fuel empire. On our shareable electric bikes, in our ride shares and our autonomous electric vehicles, we are racing away from the petrochemical monstrosity of an economy that has dominated our world for a century.
Those kind of thoughts can happen when you’re flying along with almost no effort, wind in your hair, endorphins flowing.
It was like being a celebrity, with people smiling and waving us down and asking us how we liked the Jump bikes. One guy told us he had a friend in Midtown who was so enamored with the Jump bike thing that he had decided to sell his car. The guy’s been paying $100 a month for off-street parking so he can get to his job in East Sac. Now he grabs a bike and scoots to work.
We tooled around Land Park and cruised out into the city, exploring neighborhoods, looking at houses for sale that we will never afford, Lady Bird-style. After an hour or so, we headed to Tower Café for dinner and locked our bikes to a rack. Checking out on the Jump app, I saw that our total cost for all this fun was around $8.
Seriously? Eight bucks for two bikes? How in the world can this company make money giving us all this fun for eight bucks? They’ve got to send someone to get these bikes and load them on a truck. They’ve got to charge these bikes and return them to the bike docks. That can’t possibly happen for four dollars and change per Jump bike. Curious, I did what we journalists do: I Googled.
It was then that I learned that Jump is Uber. The global ride-sharing megalith bought the little e-bike–sharing startup in April, just weeks before the red bikes started swarming Midtown, West Sac and Davis.
The uber-cheap pricing now made sense. Jump doesn’t need to make money. As Uber has done with its industry-shattering, world-dominating ride-share service, as it is doing with its job-eliminating autonomous vehicle program, it can subsidize the operation until it takes over the world.
And there’s another reason Jump might be able to help us all “go farther, get there faster and have more fun” for cheap. With its Jump app, Uber is collecting information about all of its users. Uber knows where my wife and I picked up our bikes. Uber knows which houses we stopped to look at, and that we ate dinner at Tower Café. Of course, in order for our Jump app to locate the nearest bike, it must access our location. But if we weren’t Silicon Valley-savvy and a touch paranoid, Uber/Jump might know everywhere we’ve been ever since we took our first ride.
Here’s how TechCrunch reported this pretty big change: “Uber says that, even though it can harvest your location constantly while its app is running in the background on your phone, it won’t use that capability. Instead, Uber claims it just needs a little bit more location data to improve its service, and it has to ask for constant access because of the way device-level permissions are structured.”
Indeed, when I downloaded the Jump app, I received a prompt that said something to the effect of: “In order to optimize your experience, we would like to track your location when you are not on the app.” I declined.
There are analysts who believe that Uber’s $72 billion valuation has more to do with the company’s access to 200 million users’ data than its little ride-sharing functionality. To some privacy hawks that is just wrong. While the Electronic Frontier Foundation gives Uber five stars, the influential tech site Motherboard objects: “The kind of data that Uber has access to—even if it’s not, say, the actual contents of your email or the actual conversations you’re having on your phone—is extremely invasive.”
I need to say for the record that I do not have duct tape covering the camera on my laptop, although I know a lot of people who do. As a 20-year veteran of Silicon Valley who until a year ago lived deep in the redwoods of the Santa Cruz Mountains, I have been on both sides of the debate as to whether digital technology is creating a world filled with freedom and power or leading us into an existential nightmare.
Is Uber evil? Is the entire universe being birthed in Silicon Valley evil? Well, yes … but no.
Uber is a verb
My driver, Haroutan, seems to blame himself for the fact that Uber isn’t paying very well. “I know, I should be driving more.
“Apparently the only way to make money is to go to the city,” he says. “I know a woman who goes to San Francisco for four or five days a week, makes $1,800. I mean—she works from 5 a.m. to 7 p.m. or it might be 7 to 5. She takes breaks, of course—but $1,800 a week … that’s pretty good. I just don’t want to do that.”
Haroutan is a trained actor, although he hasn’t worked in his field since moving from Southern California to Sacramento six months ago. “I’m mostly interested in film and television,” he says. He hadn’t heard the cliché about actors driving taxi cabs.
He said he makes anywhere from $10 to $20 an hour. “But you wonder how much you’re actually making after maintenance and all that.”
Like many serious Uber drivers, Haroutan works Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. He concedes that it’s not good for his social life. “But it’s not much different than when I worked in bars. And I’d rather do this, for now.” He recently renewed his substitute teaching permit, but seems headed into some creative field eventually. “I’m still figuring out what I’m going to do.”
A lot of Uber drivers are like Haroutan, tapping into the app and the community of riders for a time to earn extra money or to mark time while finding something else.
As it happens, I know a lot about Uber from the inside, because I was one of those drivers.
In October 2016, my wife determined that she needed to go out to Virginia to help her ailing mother. We didn’t know at the time that Mom was heading into her final days, and that my wife would end up out there on and off for months. At the time, we were running a startup—an online outdoor recreation guide—and editing a bimonthly magazine. Combined, we were barely making the mortgage. Just airfare for the trip was going to cause a financial strain.
I had a friend, a photojournalist and former TV news cameraman, who was Ubering, making good money, and having a blast. I went online and signed up.
Three days later I had a brand new car leased from an Uber affiliate. Ten days later there was an extra $500 in our bank account.
Four or five days a week for the next eight months, at around 3 p.m. I’d leave my co-working office in Los Gatos and troll for fares. I’d generally start at the Netflix headquarters down the street. If I didn’t get pinged in five minutes, I’d head up the road toward the old Apple campus in Cupertino. Frequently I’d get pinged on the way by a student headed to Stanford or an engineer at Facebook or Google. Or Uber.
Ubering in Silicon Valley was soooo meta; that became immediately obvious. And being a journalist driving with Uber in Silicon Valley provided a unique opportunity. I was embedded in what was at the time the world’s most highly valued startup in the place that invented the startup. I began interviewing my riders.
This wasn’t investigative journalism; in a way it was the opposite. I wasn’t a journalist posing as a driver, I was an Uber driver practicing journalism about my gig.
As it happened, as the weeks went by, Uber was in the news more and more. Only two years into his successful campaign to overthrow the transportation industry around the globe, CEO Travis Kalanick became a poster boy for tech-bro misbehavior after a former Uber engineer wrote a blog post detailing sexual harassment and worse at the company. That seemed to open the floodgates for more complaints and investigations. Day after day, news broke about five U.S. criminal probes involving bribes, illicit software, sketchy pricing schemes and theft of intellectual property. There were dozens of civil lawsuits and a federal inquiry into a very cool but probably illegal trick Uber was using to block police from using the service. As the drama unfolded, my riders and I listened to it on NPR in my Uber.
Then, according to Bloomberg News, Kalanick “embarked on a yearlong starring role as the villain who gets his comeuppance in the most gripping startup drama since the dot-com bubble.”
The coincidence engine
Meanwhile, I spent four or five hours a day, four or five days a week, making people’s lives easier. The Uber app connected me with a community of folks who had somewhere to go. The vast majority of these people were friendly, smart and interesting, or at least quiet.
In Silicon Valley and San Francisco, Uber offers the Pool option, which costs about half of what a regular Uber X ride costs and is true ride-sharing. I could take a student from deep in East San Jose to San Jose State—in traffic, a 15- or 20-minute drive—for a couple bucks. Invariably, along the way the algorithm would lead us to another SJS student’s home and then another’s. Uber’s algorithm works like a coincidence engine, and being the human expression of the algorithm felt a little bit magical.
When I wasn’t adding to the magic with my “Ubering” Pandora channel, built around post-rock instrumental bands Tortoise and Explosions in the Sky, I was listening to San Francisco’s NPR station KQED. Every 30 minutes, Angie Coyro, the traffic reporter, would describe the two or three accidents that were clogging the freeways of the entire greater Bay Area. The second-worst thing about living in the ultra-expensive Bay Area is the traffic—and that is something Uber and its competitors are aiming to fix.
It was my first week on the job when I got a close-up look at the future. Pulling into the Google campus to drop off an engineer, I looked to my left to see a driverless car. Uber, of course, is racing Google to develop this technology, which, of course, will put all of its drivers out of work. Looking at the various Uber driver forums, it seems as though many of them will be happy to go.
For all of its alleged sins, the one that seemed to cut the deepest for many people was Uber’s alleged driver abuse—the way the app seemed rigged to wring the most time out of drivers for the least amount of money. When I first started driving it seemed great, but there may have been some frog-boiling going on. After a while it seemed that no matter what I did, I could not crack more than $20 gross per hour. I mean, look: Expecting someone to work for $15 an hour, which is about what I netted, in an economy where the average rent was $2600 a month, is a form of abuse. The terms of the Uber auto lease—a deal only the most desperate people would enter into—were practically predatory: $700 a month. Stipulated: the gig economy itself, in which we are all lone operatives with no insurance and no stability, is fundamentally flawed.
When I spoke to other drivers, mostly hanging out at airports, there was definitely some grumbling, but nothing very pointed. Of course, this is a self-selected group: These were the drivers who were choosing to keep driving with Uber despite it all.
Last week, I happened to note that a driver named Anthony, who picked me up at Weatherstone after a meeting, had a 4.89 rating in Uber’s five-star system. That is the best I’ve ever seen (I never cracked 4.7).
Anthony is Ubering full-time for now, and he earns per hour about what I did. He works most days from 6 a.m. to 4 p.m. (mostly Monday to Friday, some Saturdays, but never Sunday—“Sunday is church,” he says). He’s happy to be making around $1,000 a week. For now.
“I’m a people person,” Anthony explains with a grin that proves it. “In here I get to meet a lot of people.”
Before returning to Sacramento 18 months ago, Anthony spent eight years in Louisiana, where he drove a truck. Prior to that, he says, “I was in management—but you need a college degree for that now, and I don’t have my degree.”
Anthony drives a big Nissan Armada, so he makes about 25 percent of his money through Uber’s XL service, picking up families with luggage at the airport. He says he also takes lots of lawmakers to and from the Capitol and the airport.
“The legislature’s out now so it’s kind of slow,” he says. “That’s another thing—I like politics, and I’m learning a lot about politics.
His from-the-hip opinion about Uber is that “it’s a good technology,” which is telling. That’s what Uber claims to be. A tech company, not a taxi service. The company’s full name is Uber Technologies, Inc. Over the years it has won and lost that argument in the courts.
“I don’t have anything to do with Uber,” Anthony says. “It feels like I’m running my own business.”
That experience has given Anthony a taste for entrepreneurship. Through a rider, he picked up a gig doing drone photography. He recently bought his own drone camera.
Where’d all these red bikes come from?
Vice Mayor Steve Hansen recalls that when Uber bought Jump back in April, the city’s team did an immediate “gut check.”
“The steering committee for Bike Share had a conference call and asked the Jump team a bunch of questions; [CEO] Ryan [Rzepecki] was on the call, and they just put our fears to rest.
“Ultimately we believe so much in the Jump team, and honestly, my constituents seem somewhat agnostic on the bigger questions around Uber.”
The city had been working with the Jump team since 2011, when the company was named Social Bicycles. The Sacramento Air Quality Management District had started putting together the Bike Share program, and soon West Sacramento and Davis jumped in. At some point the project was handed off to Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG), which put out a request for proposals.
At the time the idea was to buy an entire bike-share system—an idea that was in vogue all across the country.
“Cities bought a fleet of bicycles and docking stations and ran them like transit agencies,” Hansen recalls, “and they didn’t necessarily do very well.”
After getting its responses to the RFP, SACOG and its committee began negotiating with Social Bicycles.
“This is before they had e-bikes,” Hansen says. “We were talking about buying their system, finding a sponsor—like Citi bikes or Ford bikes, as you name it.” And then everything changed. Sacramento and the sponsor never came together. The city moved to a different funding model.
“And right when we were getting toward the final stage of our launch, that’s when we learned Uber was interested in buying them.
“They had already changed their name to Jump and had moved to all-electric bike systems. And we stuck through it all—and it put us kind of at the front of the technology curve.”
Rzepecki is the main reason the Sacramento team felt confident to push on, because Rzepecki is not Travis Kalanick. Rzepecki seems custom-made to do business in wonk-friendly, civic-minded Sacramento. No guns a-blazin’ Silicon Valley serial entrepreneur, he got the idea for Social Bicycles while working for the New York City Department of Transportation’s bicycle program. According to CrunchBase: “He sited bike racks, edited the bike map, conducted field research on bike facilities, and organized cycling promotions.”
He’s that guy. His master’s in urban planning from Hunter College has a focus on sustainability.
To hear Hansen tell it, this was a perfect match of wonky CEO with wonky city.
“I hate to put it this way, but we care so much about details because we’re a policy city, and we want everything to be so good. We put Social through a lot, and they stuck with us when I think a lot of other companies would have gotten frustrated with our level of bureaucracy and minutiae and said, you know, this has gotten too complicated; you want too much.”
The only problem is that the Jump program has been too successful. Sacramento quickly became Jump’s biggest market. Three times more people are riding Jump bikes here than in San Francisco. As of last Friday, July 20, Sacramentans had put 98,286 miles on the little fellers.
“We don’t have enough bikes,” Hansen says. “I had a call with the Jump team last week; they’re going to be bringing 100 more bikes by the end of this month, another 200 in August and another 200 in September.
“You don’t get wins this big very often,” Hansen says.
Back to Sac’s future
Sacramento’s congresswoman, Doris Matsui, says the newly arrived Jump bikes fit into a plan that has been underway for decades. Beginning with the light rail system that was launched in 1987, she says, Sacramento has been at the forefront of sustainable transport.
“This is something that we didn’t just decide on doing yesterday. It’s been something we’ve been thinking about for quite some time—evidence the fact that we have a light rail system. Forty years ago is when we really started. Had we not started it then, we could not be where we are today.”
That effort was accelerated in 2009, when, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, Sacramento received $160 million for transportation projects. Since then, the city has continued to be ambitious about cutting-edge transportation systems.
Transportation, Matsui points out, is in Sacramento’s DNA. The Transcontinental Railroad was born here at the confluence of California’s two biggest rivers, and now two of the nation’s biggest interstate highways converge here.
“Look at the history of Sacramento, and we look at transportation,” Matsui says. “Our river and transportation systems have really defined us.”
Matsui and everyone looking at Sacramento’s emergence as a leader in sustainable transportation give much of the credit for this trend to the Sacramento Municipal Utility District. Electric Transportation Manager Bill Boyce has been working at the interface of a public utility and electric vehicles probably longer than anyone.
As proof that some exciting initiatives are rooted in mind-numbing policy details, Boyce explains that the spark that ignited this revolution “was all tied to the California Air Resources Board’s zero-emission-vehicle mandate.” This CARB rule would have forced manufacturers to convert some percentage of their fleets to ZEVs.
“There were setbacks in the 2002, 2003 time period, well-documented in the film Who Killed the Electric Car,” Boyce recalls. But things got back on track around 2008, with the passage of the Energy Information Security Act, which created federal tax credits for buyers of next-gen electric vehicles such as Teslas, Nissan Leafs, and Chevy Volts. Around that time, Boyce says, SMUD worked with the city to put a charging-infrastructure backbone in place, well ahead of other municipalities.
All of this is likely what laid the groundwork for Electrify America, a program paid for by reparations from Volkswagen from the diesel emissions scandal, to choose Sacramento as its launch city, inking a deal in early June to spend $44 million here. That might just propel the city’s high-tech automotive sector into a prosperous future.
“There’s already a very educated, knowledgeable EV workforce here,” Boyce says. “Sacramento is well known in the EV community—we’ve always been seen as innovators and leaders.”
One way SMUD leads is by aggressively marketing electric vehicles to its ratepayers.
The main thrust involves building awareness of EVs with everyday drivers. A couple weekends back, SMUD brought a slew of electric vehicles to Arden Fair, where drivers could take them on joyrides.
One important marketing effort, Boyce says, is a partnership with Uber. He explains that Sacramento is Uber’s flagship partner with its EV Champion program, launched last month.
Uber reports that “studies by the International Transport Forum, UC Davis Institute of Transportation Studies, and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab found that when shared and electric mobility are properly combined, along with automation, we can shrink the number of vehicles on the road and reduce transportation’s climate footprint.”
To this stated end, Uber has expanded its app to help EV drivers keep track of their battery’s charge, thereby alleviating so-called “range anxiety.” Uber will also help drivers learn about the various tax credits and other programs available to help them buy electric vehicles. Additionally, they will teach the drivers to become advocates for electric vehicles. SMUD, meanwhile is offering Uber drivers incentives as well, including help purchasing their own charging stations.
So the city that anchored the mighty railroad connecting east with west is becoming an early adopter of a brand new transportation strategy, one that seems destined to upend the current paradigm as neatly as the steam engine wiped out the stagecoach. If the visionaries have their way, streets once clogged by too many accident-prone drivers in too many single-occupancy cars will hum with electric autonomous vehicles, many of them carrying multiple parties to multiple destinations safely and efficiently, without harm even to the e-bikes sharing the road. For all its flaws, Uber has a place in this future.
The garden of good & evil
I moved to the Santa Clara Valley before it was re-branded. It was then one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world, its fertile soil and perfect climate pumping out peaches, plums, apricots and vegetables. Orchards blanketed what was then the Valley of Heart’s Delight, and in early summer, blossoms filled the air.
Over two decades, on and off, I watched as the last of those orchards were bulldozed to make room for the high-tech revolution.
But: a word about the air. The Valley’s other nickname, back in the mid-1970s, was “The Pit,” short for “The Smog Pit.” The Diablo Range to the valley’s east and the Santa Cruz Mountains to the west were mustard-brown ghosts on days when they could be seen at all. I worked for a while as a taxi-cab driver, and then as an auto mechanic, so I felt responsible.
I can recall many days, when I was Ubering two years ago, watching cloud-shadows scoot across the Diablos. The valley’s air quality now is vastly improved, for one reason: Revolutionary inventions in automotive technology. I am not a tech-utopian, but these are some reasons why I am a tech-optimist.
Last year, greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks exceeded power-sector emissions for the first time in decades. Something has to happen. It might as well happen here.
If our electeds, civic leaders and business community manage to pull this off, we are going to see things here change fast. We are going to have to be vigilant. And we might as well enjoy the ride.