I saw the light one clear dark night during my recent vacation to that City by the Bay.
The headlights, actually.
They were attached to a late-model Toyota that pulled silently up to the curb outside my daughter’s apartment in San Francisco’s Alamo Square District.
Vishal, our driver, warmly welcomed my lovely wife, Sherry, and me. He helped us stow our bags.
The car’s interior was immaculate, the air fresh and clean. What a contrast from some of those stinky big-city cab rides that I’ve suffered through over the years.
“Ahhhh …” I sighed with transportational bliss.
It took 13 minutes for the polite and good-natured man to haul us to our hotel.
In that time, I experienced the sort of vivid religious conversion normally associated with fundamentalists who handle reptiles or, even deeper, those zealots who believe in the Mariners year after year.
I have become an Uber Goober.
I’m not sure what the term should be. But my heart now belongs to Uber – the new smartphone-centered ride service that is turning the antiquated taxi biz upside down.
“Uber is a request tool, not a transportation carrier,” states the company’s website.
What matters is that Uber, which began in San Francisco, is a game-changing way to get around for a simple reason:
Uber gives power to the riding public.
At the urging of my daughter, Emily, I installed the Uber app on my iPhone.
When it was time to go, I touched the icon. Up popped a map that used my phone’s GPS to show that no fewer than seven available cars were in my general vicinity.
Getting one would take less than three minutes, the app informed me.
But that was just the beginning of the fun.
Cool Factor 1 – Uber is a cashless system. The fare is deducted cleanly from your credit or debit card. No tips. No worries.
Cool Factor 2 – Once you’ve ordered your ride, Uber sends you your driver’s name, photograph and make of his car.
You can even watch the map as your intended car makes its way to your pickup location.
Cool Factor 3 – Similar to a post-eBay transaction, you are encouraged to grade your driver with a one-to-five “star rating” that is relayed to all future customers.
As you can well imagine, the transport tycoons are howling like scalded gibbons over this Uber intruder and similar app-based companies like Lyft. Both Uber and Lyft operate in Spokane.
Take the email I received the other day from something called Who’s Driving You?
The group’s so-called public safety campaign is “designed to educate the public about the dangers of unlicensed transportation services.”
The email contained a story about some hapless New Yorker who claimed he “was kidnapped by his Uber driver, held against his will, and involved in a high-speed chase across state lines.”
But the victim at least could take comfort knowing that Uber would handle the tip.
No company is moron-free, of course.
And I’m sure Uber has a louse factor.
Come on, I’m betting anyone who has ever traveled in one of our large cities has a tale (or three) of taxicab outrage to tell.
Like the bully cabbie Sherry and I encountered in New York.
First he wouldn’t take a credit card, insisting on cash despite the signs in the cab that said we had a choice.
Then he claimed the hotel address we gave him didn’t exist.
Then when he drove past the hotel and we pointed it out, he said we were still wrong and wouldn’t pull over.
The jerk finally dumped us off in the middle of the rainy street and then cursed us when we refused to tip him.
Oh. And did I mention his grimy cab smelled like a team of unwashed armpits after Hoopfest weekend.
We wound up using Uber nine times in San Francisco.
In each case, the cars were clean, the drivers engaging and helpful.
Most of them offered free bottled water, gum, mints and moist towelettes.
Are you kidding me?
A young Serbian man drove us to Fisherman’s Wharf one afternoon. On the way, he regaled us about what a great country this place called America is, how it is still the land of opportunity.
Will Uber change the taxi industry the way cellphones changed communicating?
I don’t know. But it’s certainly changed the way this tourist rides.
Doug Clark is a columnist for The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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