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This story is part of a series of features, The Future of Ride-Hailing. The project is intended to show how the taxicab industry, with varying degrees of success, is pushing back against the existential threat posed by the rise of ride-hailing services like Lyft and Uber.
The first time I met Wesley, I tried to explain the cloud.
His red mini-SUV had a spotless yet well-loved interior. He drove me to a lunch date with a friend, windows rolled down to welcome the sunshine and a gentle breeze that burned away the San Francisco fog. We chatted about how data is stored, how to use Dropbox, and why he had trouble updating certain iPhone apps. Dimples appeared on the older gentleman’s face when we joked about tourists at Pier 39. When I asked why he drove for Lyft, he said because he wanted to meet more people like me.
The second time I met Wesley, I was drunk.
It was midnight, shortly after a rough breakup, and I was coming home from a bar in an unfamiliar neighborhood. The address saved as “Home” in my Lyft app still belonged to my ex-boyfriend. Wesley remembered me. He felt bad when I had to correct the address. When I lamented my breakup, he reminded me love existed in the world; he was married for 35 years to the love of his life until she passed away. They moved to the Bay Area from the midwest decades before to escape harassment for their interracial marriage.
“I’m hungry,” I told him. “Do you want breakfast?”
We drove to a diner and he shut off the app. I bought us late-night omelettes, and he showed me photos of his children and talked about his spiritual work in prisons across California. We talked for about 30 minutes. He dispensed grandfatherly advice before my tipsy turned to tired. He drove me home and made sure I got into my apartment safely.
In the years since ride-hailing apps like Uber and Lyft eliminated the pane of glass that traditionally separated taxi drivers and their passengers, I’ve had lots of conversations with my drivers. Wesley is the only one I’ve bought breakfast for, but it’s not unusual for people to make friends with drivers in on-demand ride services. Now that Lyft Line and UberPool are stuffing previously unaffiliated passengers into the backseat of the same car, it’s possible to make friends with passengers, too.
The so-called “sharing economy” and its social foundation have blurred the social boundaries erected in taxis, buses, and hotels. The app-powered economy facilitating things like rides and apartment rentals between strangers has introduced a change in behavior based on increased trust from personal transactions. These changing attitudes can potentially benefit riders and drivers with new friends and job opportunities, and perhaps even better service and security long-term, but it also presents to new concerns about social boundaries and personal safety.
This compulsion to be social with Lyft or Uber drivers more than with taxis or public transit can be attributed in part to the inherent social structure upon which the apps were founded. Athena Aktipis, assistant professor of psychology at Arizona State University and co-director of the Human Generosity Project, said there’s an ambiguity in how you interact with people who are driving you around in Uber and Lyft: Do you treat it like an economic or social interaction?
“I think it taps into our desire to help others who are in need and to be helped when we are in need.”
The Human Generosity Project studies cooperation across different kinds of systems, from the cells in our bodies to how human networks cooperate and share, and how and when people help each other. Aktipis has engaged with people in the sharing economy space to investigate how the human need behind helping and being helped applies to companies connecting users to personal spaces like cars or homes.
“One of the reasons people really like engaging with Lyft, Uber, and Airbnb and those kinds of institutional frameworks is because they offer a level of engagement that is fundamentally social,” Aktipis said. “I think it taps into our desire to help others who are in need and to be helped when we are in need.”
Uber launched in 2009 as a luxury black car taxi service you hail from an app, and it was the first crack in the structure of traditional car services. Lyft came along in 2012 and introduced the fistbump and flashy mustaches, providing a lower-cost alternative to black cars and a competitor to UberX. Today, the companies reflect general stereotypes: You take Uber when you don’t feel like being too social, and Lyft tends to be a little more friendly.
By giving someone the ability to ride in a stranger’s car, they opened the door for a different kind of driver-rider relationship. Lyft trains its drives to be friendly and engaging, going back all the way to its introductory fistbump (which set social norms for the service but has since largely fallen into disuse). “We can’t fill every seat in every car if Lyft is not an inclusive experience, so we’ve been designing the experience to be inclusive, welcoming, and friendly from day one,” a Lyft spokesperson told me via email. “Drivers play a huge role in maintaining that culture.”
Taxis are branded fleets, with vehicles often indistinguishable from one another. Getting in a Lyft, by contrast, feels like a small violation because you’re getting a glimpse into someone’s personal ride. Your Lyft driver may have dropped his kids off at soccer practice an hour before he picked you up. Those personal details—a stroller in the trunk, a soccer ball in the back seat—are the first building blocks for a relationship that may only last 10 minutes.
Sometimes we sit in the front seat, eliminating barriers even further. Riders expect things like water bottles, candy, or charging cords (which drivers must pay for themselves), and there’s an unspoken social etiquette you maintain when riding with Lyft or Uber that just doesn’t happen in taxis or on public transportation.
San Francisco-based designer and photographer Yasmin Vahdatpour’s interactions with passengers and drivers in Lyft have proven lucrative professionally. While coming home from a photoshoot last year, Vahdatpour shared the backseat of a Lyft with bag designer Phuong Ma. They immediately hit it off, exchanged contact info, and have since collaborated on a number of projects for Ma’s company P.MAI.
“When you’re in a car-share service, like Uber or Lyft, it’s definitely more like you’re in someone’s personal car, so it feels a little uncomfortable to be, at least for me, on my phone. I feel like I need to be friendly and ask how their day is,” Vahdatpour said. “It gives you the opportunity to meet a stranger and chat for a bit and it feels more private than on public transit.”
Those social interactions could even lead to deeper personal connections.
Over a year ago, Jeff, a D.C. Uber passenger who requested I not use his last name, had a brief romantic tryst with the Uber driver who picked him up late night after some drinks with friends. The two hit it off and he wanted to take her out, but he couldn’t take her to get a proper drink because she was still on the clock. The pair went to CVS and chatted over liquid electrolytes. When they got back to the car, they briefly made out, exchanged numbers, and then Jeff went home.
Though neither followed up on the encounter, it’s perhaps the most extreme case of Uber and Lyft lowering barriers, whether between drivers or passengers. People ask fellow passengers on dates regularly (I’ve experienced such interactions a few times), and while it’s not always appropriate in such an intimate space, especially if either party is uncomfortable, sometimes connections happen.
Socializing was much more of a component to the apps in the early days, Aktipis said, but economic realities of ride-hailing reframe interactions as economic. As companies drastically cut fares for drivers, and as dissatisfaction mounts among them, the economic experience intensifies while maintaining the same fundamental level of social engagement.
Even if it doesn’t lead to some more, the basic act of interacting with strangers during travel can have a positive impact on the human experience. According to Juliana Schroeder, behavioral scientist and assistant professor of Management of Organizations at the University of California at Berkeley, when people interact with strangers during commutes, they have a more pleasant experience and feel better going about their day.
“Maybe companies like Uber and Lyft are capitalizing through their pool system on potentially surprisingly pleasant social interactions.”
Schroeder studied this phenomenon for a paper published in 2011. She asked public transit and taxi commuters to either interact with fellow passengers or travel in solitude. Participants were asked how they felt before and after, and what they expected the interactions to be like. Schroeder found that people expected to feel worse after having a conversation with strangers and be less productive during the day than simply sitting alone during their ride; however, researchers found precisely the opposite. People who talked to strangers had a more pleasant experience and were no less productive than solitary travelers.
“It suggests people mispredict what the minimal social experiences will feel like, and in fact they can lead to a boost in happiness, mood, and pleasantness,” Shroeder told me. “Maybe companies like Uber and Lyft are capitalizing through their pool system on potentially surprisingly pleasant social interactions.”
So what makes it so easy to talk to people in Uber?
“Some Uber drivers seem to be pretty chatty almost seem to be partially doing it for the social interaction in addition to the income, and some are just trying to make money,” Jeff said. “It’s in the news and people talk a lot about the pay and some of the legal aspects of it, and it’s a natural conversation starter.”
Think about the last time you ordered a car. You knew the name of the driver immediately, what kind of car she drove, and what she looked like. If you were in a Pool or Line, you knew the same basic information about the other riders. Lyft even lets you set up personal profiles through the app or by connecting your Facebook account, and you can see shared friends or interests. And your information—including where you’re picked up and where you’re going—is shared with all parties as well. What about the last time you hopped in a taxi or rode the bus. Do any similar details stand out?
By using profile photos and first names, e-hailing apps eliminate the anonymity of interacting in transportation services. It provides a foundation for a relationship immediately that you don’t have with a taxi driver who picked you up from the airport.
“The infrastructure of the ridesharing services moves people away from the idea of anonymous economic interactions, where the only thing that’s happening is money is being paid for a service, and moves it into a social space much more where there are other norms and expectations,” Aktipis said. “That social component of being polite and interested in the other person is much more likely to emerge when you’re providing an infrastructure that decreases anonymity.”
Studies have shown that anonymity increases bad behavior in everything from road rage to harassment on social networks. Removing that anonymity by affixing a name and face to both driver and passenger provides accountability for everyone’s actions.
When our reputation is on the line—and for Lyft and Uber drivers, who are rated after each trip, it is—we’re more cognizant of our behavior. A 2008 Harvard University study found that valuing reputation leads to cooperation. When given opportunities to enhance your own reputation, change your behavior in social situations to improve your reputation, or learn about the reputation of others, cooperation prevails.
Of course, removing anonymity isn’t always in the best interest of passengers. In April, I took a Lyft Line with a stranger who, after our ride, found me online and contacted me through multiple social media channels to ask me out. It was the first time I experienced someone violate the social contract passengers and drivers establish as soon as you request a ride.
There are also larger issues raised by behavioral changes resulting from on-demand car services. There’s a growing phenomenon of strangers entering random cars thinking they’re Lyfts or Ubers. People have entered Vahdatpour’s car unsolicited, without realizing she’s just another San Francisco driver, not one who is getting paid. Accidentally getting into the wrong car can have consequences. Women in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. have been assaulted after hopping into what they initially thought was their ride.
There are 37,000 Uber and Lyft drivers that operate in San Francisco more than seven times per year—a huge number of folks driving without the same oversight as traditional taxi cabs. Although the cars have stickers or illuminated mustaches signifying they are an official ride-hailing car, it’s not as obvious as taxis’ branding, and because people are using their own cars, passengers who aren’t paying close attention can end up opening a door to a car they have no businesses in.
“If you have a company like Uber that’s growing so rapidly in cities where there are unknown risks, things can happen,” Aktipis said. “It’s one of the downsides of having what is really a new cultural institution, social and economic institution, of these rideshares. There are unknown risks and when you’re participating in these institutions, you’re taking on some of that risk as an individual.”
Then, of course, there are problems with harassment, sexual assault, and other safety issues. Uber’s responses to safety concerns has drawn strong criticism, and some incidents have forced Uber to add safety protocols to better protect users, like introducing a panic button for riders in India after one rider said she was raped by her driver.
“In our experience, the best taxicab ride is so uneventful that it is forgotten in minutes.”
Critics are pushing for more rigorous regulation regarding driver background checks, fingerprinting, training, and other rules dictating who can be permitted to use their cars to pick up strangers. It’s these problems that taxi companies and others in the transportation industry cite as the reasons why cabs are still a better option. In California, city officials from San Francisco to Los Angeles are pushing for more stringent regulations, and Flywheel Taxi is suing California regulators for the unequal treatment taxicabs receive compared to Uber and Lyft.
Taxi companies are not universally convinced that social interaction is appealing to all riders. Charles Rathbone, assistant manager at Luxor Cabs in San Francisco, explained via email that while it may seem like a good idea for drivers to be chatty with passengers, personal relationships are secondary to providing safe, efficient services with adequate insurance and transparent pricing.
“In our experience, the best taxicab ride is so uneventful that it is forgotten in minutes. Like passing through a door, the experience should be simple, predictable, routine and unexciting,” Rathbone explained. “We continue to train our drivers that professional taxicab service is not about getting better star ratings, and is not about convincing customers that you are ‘nice.’ It’s about safe, courteous service to all in a vehicle that is inspected and insured. It’s about knowing the best route to take. It’s about fair pricing.”
There are certainly people who prefer the barriers and predictability of a traditional taxi ride, but I know I’m not alone in appreciating the random encounters that ride-hailing provides. I have a few people saved in my phone as “John Doe (Lyft)” in the same way I have one or two “John Smith (Tinder),” though I never texted them. And as uncomfortable as it was receiving an email from a stranger I didn’t want to engage with last month, typically the casual social interactions I get from chatting with drivers and passengers are as entertaining as they are fleeting.
I never got Wesley’s phone number, and I am always a little disappointed when the Lyft app tells me to look for a car that’s not his red vehicle. His unexpected companionship was welcome at a moment when I was desperate for omelettes and temporary friendship.
Selena Larson is a technology reporter based in San Francisco who writes about the intersection of technology and culture. Her work explores new technologies and the way they impact industries, human behavior, and security and privacy. Since leaving the Daily Dot, she's reported for CNN Money and done technical writing for cybersecurity firm Dragos.