Why do self-identified progressives/liberals use Uber/Lyft? And am I really any different?

I only need one reason to vote against California’s 2020 Proposition 22: it requires a 7/8 majority in the California legislature to be amended unless it is overridden by another proposition (meaning another expensive campaign – the Yes on 22 campaign, at over $180 million dollars, primarily funded by a few corporations, is already the most expensive campaign for a ballot measure in California history). The original AB5 law had glaring problems, has already been amended by the legislature, and can be amended again. Any law like AB5 or Prop 22 with massively uncertain social and economic effects needs to be open to amendation by the legislature and not require a clunky voter measure to fix. For this reason alone, I urge all California voters to VOTE NO. If you support any clauses in the proposition, it is much better to pester your representatives in the legislature to pass appropriate legislation so that if it backfires and does not work out the way you hope, it can be fixed.

That said, what I really want to talk about how people who claim to be progressive, in favor of fair pay, an equal economic playing field, and rule of law, still choose to patronize Uber/Lyft/etc.

Last year, when I was in Juneau, I needed a few car rides, and I wanted to share them with other people so I could split the fare. I knew, from talking to locals, that there were very few Lyft drivers in Juneau and that they charged even higher fares than the local taxi companies. I passed on this information to other tourists in Juneau, and they still chose Lyft. At first, I could not believe it. Why would anyone choose a more expensive service with less availability? It was only when they tried to get a Lyft and failed because no driver was available that they finally listened to me, called a local taxi company, and were shocked that the local taxi company charged less, even though I had already told them that would be the case. When I asked them why they tried Lyft even after my warning, they said “because it’s convenient.”

And not all tourists heeded me even after they could not get a Lyft ride. Even when they knew they would have to wait more than an hour for a Lyft, they refused to do a price comparison with a local taxi company and preferred to wait for the Lyft rather than get a taxi which would arrive much sooner.

I finally figured out that, by ‘convenient,’ they mean it’s their habit to always choose Lyft, even when someone is telling them they will have to wait longer and pay more. They are not in the habit of dealing with any of the taxi companies in Juneau. There is some psychological benefit that is worth spending more time and money on.

It’s not just Juneau – I know the situation is similar in Anchorage and Fairbanks, the other cities in Alaska with Lyft (I was warned repeatedly in Anchorage not to use Lyft because it’s expensive and the wait times are longer). I do not know why Lyft operates this way in Alaska, but my guess is that the Alaska state government is enforcing a law that forces Lyft to operate on the same terms as taxi companies – A level playing field where everyone has to play by the same rules, rather than enforcing the laws for some companies while letting other companies break them because they are backed by certain investors.

I do not think it is a bad thing that the Lyft drivers in Alaska charging such high fares. It means they are probably earning a living wage. And since the base operating costs of Uber/Lyft are the same as traditional taxi companies (actually they are higher because they are less efficient on the operations side) the fact that Lyft charges a bit more than the local taxi companies probably reflects the fact that the business playing field is level, and Lyft is not being given an unfair advantage in Alaska by being able to get away with breaking laws or engaging in predatory pricing (which is also often illegal). If tourists still prefer Lyft even with the higher fares and longer wait times, that’s their choice.

(After paying tips, I probably paid as much for local taxis in Alaska as I would have for Lyft-without-tips).

I admit that I have not read all (or even most) of Huber Horan’s series about Uber, but I think I get the gist of it: Uber and Lyft depend on a predatory business model where a) they get to ignore laws/regulations that taxi companies are forced to obey (unequal before the law) and b) massive funding from wealthy investors allowed them to offer services far below cost in order to drive their competition (taxi companies) out of business. It only makes sense for investors to do this if they want to establish an unregulated monopoly.

When I have pushed against people using Uber/Lyft in California (I did not apply these arguments in Alaska since they did not seem to apply there), a common response is “yeah, well the taxi regulations were bad and needed to be broken up.” I agree that taxi regulation is bad and needs reform. But I would rather keep bad taxi regulation intact and apply it equally to everyone than exempt some people from the law just because they are funded by the wealthy.

To explain what I mean, let me make an analogy to marijuana. I am in favor of the legalization of marijuana, not because I want to encourage anyone to use it, but because I think prohibition is much more harmful than decriminalization/legalization. It is well known that in the United States black people are much more likely to be arrested on marijuana charges than white people, even though both groups use marijuana at a similar rate. The people who justify Uber/Lyft on account of challenging bad taxi regulations are saying the equivalent of “I’m in favor of white people getting arrested for marijuana at lower rates than black people because the prohibition of marijuana is bad.” Though I am anti-prohibition, I would rather have a prohibition law that was being applied equally to people of all races than one which was only being enforced on people of certain races. Likewise, even if a law is bad, I’d rather have it be applied equally to all companies rather than only enforce it against taxi companies and not against tech companies funded by billionaires.

And then there is the issue of wages. In the case of drivers, this is complicated by the question of who bears the expenses of fuel/vehicles/insurance/etc., and that Uber/Lyft drivers are paid different rates depending on a bunch of factors, but it’s clear that, after taking into account expenses, Uber/Lyft drivers tend to get paid below living wage. Some individual Uber/Lyft drivers are savvy enough to get higher pay than ordinary taxi drivers, and there are other complicating factors beyond the scope of this post, but it’s not a secret that most full-time Uber/Lyft drivers are not paid a living wage after expenses. (So why don’t they leave? Actually, they do leave, there is very high turnover among Uber/Lyft drivers).

I know there are few people, possibly including my acquaintances, who pay high enough tips that their Uber/Lyft drivers get paid a living wage. But statistics show that this a minority of Uber/Lyft riders. And if the tips are so high, then Uber/Lyft isn’t cheaper than local taxis.

Some people openly state that they don’t care about equal treatment under the law or whether drivers earn enough money to meet their living expenses. I’m not talking about those people. I’m talking about people who claim to be liberals and/or progressives, yet choose Uber/Lyft instead of taxis or public transit.

(And there’s the environment too. That is a whole ‘nother issue in itself, but the short version is that Uber and Lyft promotes more burning of fossil fuels by increasing traffic congestion, encouraging people to make more trips, encouraging people to use private vehicles instead of public transit, and having drivers drive extra distances to pick up and drop off passengers rather than people having their own vehicles to go from point A to B without wasted distances covered).

That raises a good question: have I used Uber or Lyft? On two occasions, I did share a Lyft ride with others. I did not initiate the Lyft trip, and even if I had opted for public transit instead, those Lyft trips would have happened anyway. That’s it.

Let me state a few things about myself. I grew up in San Francisco, where, at least when I was growing up, using public transit is a civic virtue. Using a private vehicle 90% of the time and public transit 10% of the time was socially acceptable, but outright refusing to use public transit was considered bad citizenship and a rejection of San Francisco culture.

However, many people who live in San Francisco did not grow up here with our cultural values. I take it for granted that good citizens use public transit at least once in a while, but many newcomers don’t take that for granted. And if they grew up in sheltered middle-class communities where they were kept away from poor people as much as possible except as hired help, they might now like having to share a bus or train with poor people as equals (not that middle-class people in San Francisco aren’t also very classist, but at least there is an expectation that middle-class passengers can share a bus with poor passengers). If I had grown up in a more sheltered middle-class community with almost no experience of public transit, would my behavior be any better than theirs? I’m not sure. I do think if many of these newcomers to the city had grown up here, they would rely a lot less on Uber/Lyft and use public transit more often.

(I admit that my cultural background of believing that using public transit is a civic virtue and that people who disdain public transit are high-and-mighty people who hate San Francisco is a strong subjective bias and perhaps unfair).

Also, I first learned about Uber/Lyft while I was living in Taiwan, where, at the time, Uber/Lyft was not around. Specifically, I first learned about Uber and Lyft from articles about how laws were being applied unequally, that laws which were being enforced for taxi companies were not being enforced for tech companies. This was my first impression.

But it’s not the first impression for most Uber/Lyft riders.

Most Uber/Lyft drivers first learned about the service as a way to get a taxi that was cheaper/cleaner/more convenient, etc. Of course, it’s only cheaper/more convenient because it’s subsidized by investors (and, to an extent, by underpaying drivers, but mostly because of investor subsidy). They were not thinking of the political, social, or economic impacts during their first ride. They just wanted to get from Point A to Point B.

And that first ride was the poisoned fruit.

In the book I discussed a few weeks ago, Influence, he describes a potent technique of incentivizing behavior with small rewards to establish a habit. One of his examples was American prisoners of war in the Korean War. Almost all of the American POWs in camps run by North Koreans remained loyal to the United States military, but many POWs in camps run by the Chinese became collaborators, such as by agreeing to interrogations in which they gave the Chinese strategic intelligence, sometimes going above and beyond what the Chinese interrogators asked for. Was it just chance that the American POWs in North Korean-run camps were more loyal? According to Cialdini, the answer is no. He says that the Chinese were much better at persuading POWs to do what they wanted. And an important technique was offering small rewards, such as a piece of fruit, for small seemingly-harmless acts, such as writing down on a piece of paper that the United States is not perfect. Most Americans do not believe the United States is perfect, so they could believe that writing this down on a piece of paper was an expression of their honest opinion, not a result of manipulation. But those small admissions would become bigger, always committed to paper (so the POWs could not deny them), and the rewards were kept deliberately small so that the POWs could not tell themselves that they were doing it just for the rewards. Thus, the POWs came to believe that they really sympathized with the Chinese military, and decided that they wanted to help them.

I have heard secondhand/thirdhand that some well-paid salaried employees of Uber and Lyft with good benefits think that their employer is unethical, but they work for them for the money/interesting job opportunity/resume building. This is a big enough reward that these employees can tell themselves that they are doing it for the reward, not because it reflects their ethical convictions.

But riders are being rewarded by below-cost rides, subsidized by investors who hope to establish a monopoly. It is much harder for people to believe that they are compromising their principles for a subsidized ride than for a well-paid interesting job. Therefore they believe that actually, yes, they believe in Uber and Lyft, they believe in using unfair enforcement of the law to address bad taxi regulations, they believe that precarious below-living-wage work is a good thing, that increasing traffic congestion and causing extra miles to be driven is good for the environment somehow. That is how they becoming psychologically invested in their identity as Uber/Lyft users, and why they continue even when someone explains why that choice is bad, even if it’s bad for completely self-interested reasons such as “in this city, Lyft costs more and has a longer wait time than the local taxi companies”.

When I first moved to Mountain View, I made a point of getting around by public transit and walking as much as possible, and try to minimize using my car, because I believed that This Was the Way to Do Things. My neighbors thought this was ridiculous. I learned really fast that walking/public transit is much less conveninent in Santa Clara county than in San Francisco, and that driving a car was much more convenient. For example, going into San Jose by public transit too 3-4 times longer than driving, and at the times I wanted to be in San Jose parking was relatively easy to find. The longer I stayed there, the more often I chose to use the car, even when walking/public transit was a viable option. More and more trips to San Jose, and even back to San Francisco, were done by car, not public transit. The only people I knew in Santa Clara county who were rigorous about using public transit/bikes/etc. instead of cars were the people who didn’t own cars.

Would I have been any different from typical ‘liberal/progressive’ Uber/Lyft customers if I had tasted the convenience of below-cost ridesharing before I learned of the negative impacts? The scary answer is, I suspect I would not have been different.

6 thoughts on “Why do self-identified progressives/liberals use Uber/Lyft? And am I really any different?

  1. This was a pretty interesting read. I’ve always been suspicious of services like Uber and Lyft, but I don’t know a lot about the details of their business practices.

    “I admit that my cultural background of believing that using public transit is a civic virtue and that people who disdain public transit are high-and-mighty people who hate San Francisco is a strong subjective bias and perhaps unfair”

    It’s worth noting that getting around by public transit is largely a privilege of living in a big city. Cities with large populations can better support multiple bus/train/tram lines, whereas, if you live in a smaller city, you may have only a few buses that only come ever half-hour and stop running after 6:00. In those cities, public transit may be so inconvenient that people are forced to rely on their cars, regardless of class. So a preference for driving is not necessarily a sign of snobbery.

    Another thing that’s worth noting is that driving versus busing really does affect your sense of geography. My subjective sense of what comprises my city is strongly correlated to “Where can I get to by bus?” My subjective sense of how far away any given part of my city is is strongly correlated to “How easily can I get there by bus?” This often bears little relationship to objective geography. Look at this map of Ottawa: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Newottawamap.png It might look like the area called Bell’s Corners is more central than Kanata or Barrhaven. But both Kanata and Barrhaven are serviced by multiple major bus routes, whereas Bell’s Corners has one bus that runs every… 30 minutes? Hour? The point is, it’s a pain in the neck to get to, and, for someone like me, that means it practically doesn’t exist. There are other areas around the city that you can’t get to at all without a car, and they are similarly excluded from my mental map of it.

    If I had grown up with a car, my sense of Ottawa geography might be very different. I might have spent much more time in remote corners of the city without bus service and much less in inner-city areas with limited parking. And, having come to understand the city in a certain way, I might be reluctant to switch to a different mode of tranportation that made parts of it inaccessible. Taking public transit versus driving may thus be a vicious/virtuous cycle: You only go to the parts of the city that are accessible to you based on your method of transportation; consequently, you only develop attachments to those parts of the city; consequently, you continue to go to those parts of the city; consequently, you choose the method of transportation that will best enable you to get to those parts of the city; consequently, you keep using the same method of transportation.

    That is, obviously, an argument for raising children on public transit. But it is also a reason some drivers might be reluctant to switch, beyond just, “Ew, poor people.”

    • “It’s worth noting that getting around by public transit is largely a privilege of living in a big city. ”

      To be clear, I am just talking about people who live in San Francisco, not people who live in, say, Marin County (which is adjacent to San Francisco but has more limited public transit). I’m referring to people who move to San Francisco, live within city limits, yet refuse to use public transit (and not weird edge cases, such as living on Treasure Island which only gets a bus every 45 minutes).

      I myself was raised with a mix of public transit and use of a private car, but at least I was trained to public transit from a very young age. And I totally know what you mean about modes of transportation changing personal geography. When my household went carfree (our car was too broken to be worth fixing and we decided not to replace it) it changed our sense of local geography for sure.

      For example, there is a particular neighborhood in San Francisco that isn’t well-connected to my neighborhood by public transit, even though it’s geographically closer than downtown. Plus, finding parking in that neighborhood wasn’t too hard (by San Francisco standards). So when we had a car, I would usually drive to and from that neighborhood. After we stopped having a car, going to-and-from that neighborhood became a really pain in the butt compared to going into downtown. But now that we’re avoiding public transit as much as possible because of the pandemic, that neighborhood is now easier to reach than downtown because it is a shorter distance by foot (it’s about a 1 hour walk away, versus 1 hr 15 min to get to downtown).

  2. I agree with most of this, but a few remarks:

    I do think that the uber/lyft apps offer a substantial service, I mean, they’re subject to the usual tech industry user experience optimization, and that has some value. Although, I haven’t investigated taxi apps, I’m curious if they have made strides in recent years.

    While the 7/8 rule is unnecessarily onerous, I think it was added as a concession to critics, because by default propositions cannot be overturned by the legislature at all. My husband actually votes against many propositions on principle because of this, although it’s confusing because some things can *only* be done by proposition (e.g. overturning previous propositions), and some propositions are put there by the legislature. I don’t vote exclusively this way but I’m always made aware of it as a consideration.

    • I know that it was added as a concession, but as a concession, I think it’s meaningless. Is there any way the legislature will get a 7/8 majority on anything this complicated and contentious? And if a 7/8 majority really happened, I’d think the legislative process is broke: I don’t think it’s possible to get THAT much consensus on this without excluding relevant points of view.

      I’m not sure what your point is with the apps. I can see how one app might be more user-friendly than another, and that someone who travels a lot might prefer to use an app that works in many cities rather than download a new local taxi app in every city (though, after a quick check, I found that the Curb app can hail local taxis in a lot of US cities). My sample size was very small, but the Alaska residents I talked to thought that it wasn’t worth paying a premium in money and waiting time to use Uber/Lyft instead of local taxis, regardless of the app experience (but local pride might have also been a factor).

      • Oh, I’m definitely not saying that the 7/8 thing was a meaningful concession. Rather, I’m saying that this is a problem that applies to many propositions, and it is a good reason to reject in many cases.

        The uber/lyft apps may or may not be a big benefit from your perspective, I’m merely saying that it is a benefit. I think you portrayed it as if the only benefit were habit.

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