Taxicab Confessions

by James Lileks
Uber provided the best cab ride of my life because Freedom.

Many people on the right have embraced Uber, the company that lets you call a ride from your smartphone instead of standing on the corner with your hand up looking like a statue of Lenin leading the proletariat to the Future, or maybe to that tapas place downtown. This confuses people who regard conservatives as dumb apes who poke Shiny New Things with a stick and screech in alarm. How can they support Uber? It’s a Cool Thing, and they’re all middle-aged dorks in polyester plaid shorts and black socks with sandals who like to “get down” to bands that sing about pickup trucks, or they’re pale evil men who wear three-piece suits to bed and drift off to sleep fantasizing that they’re slapping the birth-control pills out of the hands of poor women. Uber is good, Uber is an app, for heaven’s sake — how can these cretins possibly be on its side? It’s like finding that all the kale in the country is fertilized by Koch products.

Jalopnik, a popular site about cars, explains the reason with a willfully stupid Internet coinage: Uber Is the New GOP Darling Because Freedom.

It helps if you imagine Stephen Colbert saying it, I suppose. Freedom: the word is supposed to make you roll your eyes, just like “liberty” — one of those things we’re supposedly losing Because Liberals. What we’re usually protesting is our inability to be racist, homophobic trolls who think the country started going downhill when the Statue of Liberty wasn’t a white male holding up a rifle instead of a torch.

The article says: “A recent (pro-Uber) petition launched on the GOP site hits all the Republican talking points — ‘unions’, ‘strangling regulations’ and of course ‘liberal government bureaucrats’ — as a way to illustrate how big government and a unionized workforce are killing our freedoms.”

Someone else’s convictions are always talking points.

As for Uber itself, well, let’s take a look at the wonderful world of cars-for-hire. When I lived in D.C. in the 90s, I took a lot of cabs. Now and then you’d get a spotless ride with a courteous older driver who knew every street and alley. When I say “now and then” it was in the sense of “now and then, there’s a presidential election.”

For the most part, the cabs had seats that felt like the thin battered beds of a hot-sheet motel and a sweat-and-barf perma-funk that made you roll down the windows in January. The fare wasn’t set by distance or time, but by zones, which encouraged the drivers to drive fast. While this made for speedy trips, and the not-unpleasant sensation of feeling your cheeks ripple with G-forces as he shot down the Dupont Circle tunnel like someone testing a rocket car on the Salt Flats of Utah, the occasional moments of weightlessness when you hit a bump reminded you that you were doing 50 mph in a car whose shock absorbers didn’t, and whose brakes probably wouldn’t.

When I moved back to Minneapolis I had no occasion to take the cab, except for trips back from the airport. The cars weren’t exactly new; when you looked at the fleet idling in the bays, it made you think, “this is what Havana would look like if Castro took over in 1982.” The drivers were usually unfamiliar with the city, which seems to violate the Law of Cabbies, somehow. You sit in the back like a human Tom-Tom unit, giving turn-by-turn directions. When you’re finally home, and it’s time to settle, you get out a credit card — which causes the driver to sigh, because he has to get out an imprint machine and rack up the card like it’s the Four Seasons in 1962 and you’re paying with a Diner’s Club.

On a trip to L.A. earlier this year I called a cab to get me to the Minneapolis airport. I stood outside the house with a suitcase. I watched the cab drive past; I ran after it waving my arms as if it was the last helicopter out of Erbil. Once inside, I looked around for anything long and sharp that might help squeegee off the cooties. The driver took a route that always backs up at rush hour, and the meter ticked away the escalating price. When we got to the airport I was delighted to find the car had a credit-card reader, but it didn’t work.

From the L.A. hotel to the airport, I finally tried Uber. The dot on my screen showed where the car was. When it arrived, the driver popped the trunk and offered me water. What? Water? The most I ever expected from a cab was a vinegar-soaked rag on a stick. The interior of the car was pristine; I was offered my choice of music selection; I was stunned to find there wasn’t a motorized shoe-shine unit under the seats and a tanning lamp. With hesitation I engaged in conversation with the driver —  the Cabbie Convo is the worst form of parachute journalism, and if this guy was actually useful or fascinating I could never use it.

But I will, because it was. He had run a few franchise sandwich shops, and they’d gone under. One died because the real-estate market crashed and emptied out the neighborhood; the other suffered from the marketing incompetence of the parent company, which soured the brand and drove the franchise owners to penury and despair. Now he was doing this. Did he want to do this? Eh, it’s a living.

At the end no money was exchanged. The app did that. No receipt was required. The app did that. I was asked to rate the driver, and gave him the best possible rating. Most excellent cab ride of my life — probably because it wasn’t a cab at all. 

So that’s why conservatives like Uber! We can pretend it didn’t cost anything, and can judge those who have failed in the marketplace and been driven down the economic ladder. It has nothing to do with breaking up a monopoly with a new idea, or getting around the burdensome rules that prevent an entrepreneur from entering a locked-up market, or letting a superior service force the old model to improve its game. (The local cab company did come up with an app, and while it let you make a reservation, it warned you that this wasn’t a guarantee a cab would actually show up. Other than that, a straight-up Uber-killer.)

No, it can’t be about any of that. If the Right wants to free public schools from their century-old model, it’s just about hating unions. (Because Freedom.) If they object to the impact of the minimum wage, it’s just about hating workers. (Because Freedom.) If they object to the unsustainable drain of Social Security, it’s because they hate the old; if they object to socialized medicine it’s because they hate the sick; if they object to making nuns pay for late-term abortion it’s because they hate women.

If they hate taxis and want an alternative, well, because Freedom.

Whoa! At least they got that one right.

— James Lileks is a columnist for National Review Online.

Did you like this?