In the last few days I have been Uber-ing around thanks to car trouble. It’s a stopgap measure until I decide what to do. To keep my travel expenses in check, I have tried out Uber’s most economical option, the Express Pool. A rider can choose to walk a few minutes to be picked up by a driver and save a few dollars from the usual carpool rate. In my case, the Express Pool fare runs about half of the regular, door-to-door personalized service.
On the first day, choosing this mode of transit felt like an adventure. Except one driver took me on a heavily trafficked street when I knew of a faster route. I asked him about it, and we both concluded that Uber likely sent us there because the algorithm thought it would be more likely to find another fare along this commercial district rather than on the shorter route, even though – if he saved time dropping me off – he’d then be available sooner to pick up a new, possibly higher fare. He told me that, in the future, to tell the driver where to go if I knew a better way.
Yesterday, thinking I’d put myself in a place that an Uber driver could easily find, I summoned an Express Pool ride while waiting at a Whole Foods. The app instructed me to meet the driver a four minute walk away. Like a marionette being moved by a virtual puppeteer, I followed the map and made my way over to a quiet intersection in the middle of a residential neighborhood, off the beaten path for a driver, too, but presumably algorithmically efficient. I took a seat in the back and we then drove to pick up the next riders, a South Asian couple with large umbrellas. I imagined that one of them would sit in the front, the other in the back, except they both squeezed into the seats next to me. Perhaps I could have moved to the front, but inertia took over and it didn’t seem worth the fuss. I reminded myself that not all that long ago, although long enough for the cultural imprint to have faded, I’d been in Morocco with a different notion of personal space. Besides, why not huddle on a cold morning?
On my second ride that same day, where I shared the back seat with a young male passenger, I noticed that the driver was close to an intersection near my destination. I asked him to show me where his mapping software told him to go. He raised up his phone and I glanced at the screen, which showed a semicircular route, presumably one where he’d be more likely to pick up another passenger. I asked him if he’d be willing to just make a sharp right and then one more turn to take me to where I needed to go. He agreed, shaving several minutes off the trip. And, all of us agreed that Uber sucks, even though we all were using it because it sucked less than other options. In my case, if I plan my itinerary, it’s more affordable than renting a car for a day, minus the hassle of paperwork, buying gasoline, etc. It also allows me to go places that public transit doesn’t serve or serves so poorly that I’d spend 1-2 hours getting to a destination less than 10 miles away.
For my final ride that afternoon, I opened the app and followed the instructions to walk to a busy intersection, one where I’d been picked up before. After standing in the cold for several minutes and watching the progress of the driver on the app, Uber notified that my ride had been cancelled. Without other transit options, I tried Uber again. The driver showed up on the opposite side of the street, so I scooted across, unable to clearly see the license plate in the darkening afternoon. After confirming that he was the driver, a question that rankled the guy until I explained that it was hard to be sure without my glasses, I got into that car. This guy complained that Uber often has drivers stop where there is no safe place to pull over (true). He also explained that riders who choose the Express Pool option are less of a priority than regular pool riders, so even if I am picked up first the next rider might be dropped off first. Like the other driver, he was willing to follow my directions rather than the app’s, except in the meantime Uber pinged him to pick up a new passenger, making my attempt to save time superfluous.
I am left wondering: Can I find my own rhythm in Uber’s suboptimal algorithm?
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