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Crosstown: High-tech Hitchhiking

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“Ever heard of this game called Crazy Taxi?” asks Victor, my Lyft driver. Apparently, it’s “old-school” Sega, set in San Francisco: “You crash into stuff, run over people. You want to get from point A to point B and have a good time.” I’ve been in Victor’s storm-gray Mazda Tribute for five minutes, but we’ve already been through a lot. First, there was the fist bump, the requisite, ­company-mandated Lyft greeting. Ours was awkwardly gentle. Then Victor yanked the furry, hot-pink three-foot mustache that identifies Lyft cars off the dash, folded it over to squeeze it by my head, and tossed it on the back seat. With Lyft, you ride shotgun, since however awkward it is to sit next to a stranger you’re paying to ferry you around a city remade by its nouveau-­billionaire set, riding behind the driver would just be too class­-blind.

In Manhattan, you scratch your ear and a fleet of chauffeurs glides up to the curb. In the Bay Area, hailing a taxi has been, historically, futile; taxis don’t appear when you want them, and when you call, they take ages to show up. Of course, like everything else that might frustrate a 20-­something flush with VC cash, tech has supplied the ideal solution. Or oversupplied, since there has been for 30 years already an amble-down-to-the-corner-and-get-in commuter system called Casual Carpool. (An unofficial message board features useful, if nannyish, warnings with subjects like “Strange-acting rider, North Berkeley,” “Oakland driver—anger management,” and “Alameda: avoid red Jeep Cherokee.”) Now, there is a comical hierarchy of exquisitely status-sensitive ride-share options—that hippie carpooling given a for-profit frosting. There’s Uber, of course—black Lincoln Town Cars or Escalades driven by professionals. And the less-posh spinoff UberX. There’s Sidecar, which is similar to Lyft. But Sidecar lets you choose your ride, driver, and price—don’t want to show up in a Prius? Wait a minute for the Audi Quattro. You can also pick your favorite Sidecar drivers. And of course, none of these services makes you dirty your hands with paper money—they all require credit-card information in their apps, so no cash changes hands. (They don’t accept bitcoin—yet.) Uber feels more polished, Lyft feels less corporate, more casual. “But we have to maintain a 4.7 rating,” says Victor, “or we’re at risk of being deactivated”—4.7 out of 5. Thankfully, the Bay Area is a relentlessly trending-upward sort of place. I can’t imagine anyone giving less than a four.


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