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As of now, your Ubers and Lyfts are not supposed to enjoy that privilege. Some drivers were arrested or cited at San Francisco International Airport this year. Tim says Uber has promised to pay any fines they accrue for illegally delivering passengers to SFO Airport, but still “we take precautions, take our phone out of the cradle and hide it. If you can get the passenger to sit up front, do so. Ask them to give me a hug and pretend we’re friends. I joke with my passengers I feel like a coyote taking illegal aliens across the border. “
Tim worries that if all the UberX drivers—another service he provides for Uber, a lower cost one competing directly with Lyft with normal drivers driving their personal vehicles—have to be visibly stickered with the new “TNC” classification, the airport gravy train could be over for them and “that can be 40 percent of our income.”
Jess was already nabbed at SFO, though she got off with a warning. An airport snoop noticed the pink moustache stuffed in her trunk when the passenger took out his luggage. “They told me what they look for—for people in back seats, for fist bumps [another Lyft tradition between drivers and passengers], for phone holders on the dash.” Even if Lyft paid any fines, she could still suffer driver's license points, Jess says. She was scared straight—for a while. She’s been doing clandestine airport deliveries again, hiding the moustache deeper, and constructing stories with the passenger about being cousins.
Such gambits may seem silly or even sad for representatives of a technology that is revolutionary for an industry that, as Steven Juliver says, is one where “80 percent of the fleets still operate like Danny DeVito in Taxi.” Juliver is CEO of a smartphone dispatch service called NexTaxi that works exclusively with existing regulated taxi fleets and, unlike Uber, allows them to maintain their own branding. On the side of the existing taxi fleets he serves, he said, “I love the tech, we are in the tech business. I understand what [companies like Uber and Lyft and others] are doing and why they are doing it. But it has to be a level playing field.”
In California, localities have the legal power to regulate cabs, while the state claims that right for other forms of hired drivers. So the CPUC’s actions will never be seen by taxi companies or drivers as leveling that field; the political fight over these services is not over. And while Uber is being hobbled in various ways in cities from Portland to Miami, it has also won victories in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Colorado. Uber has big money behind it—a recent quarter-billion investment and partnership with Google. Tim says he and some fellow drivers see Uber making the mere conveying of passengers by drivers obsolete: they see Uber’s system as a perfect final step in, say, Amazon’s need for swift real-time delivery. In the Google Ventures alliance, they can’t help but darkly suspect within a decade Uber cars will all be driverless Google vehicles.
A traditional taxi driver in San Francisco—the fourth city in which he’s been a professional cabby—named Heath knows exactly what he thinks about UberX and Lyft drivers: “Scabs!” He’s an old-school working class man, and sees them as the equivalent of the forces that made “a city full of factories close down and go to China.”
He’s attracted to the old cabbie glamour of the lone ronin, refusing to give his number to passengers who love him, taking a perverse pride in how he’s often dealing with “a crack whore who spits on me” while others just “want to get in a car with a young white person and fist bump and say ‘hey dude, what’s up?’ I’m just not that person.” He’s proud of both his curmudgeonliness and a deep knowledge of the city’s underbelly that will be lost when his ilk is gone; “are you going to Yelp about a handjob?”
Every new technology destroys old ways of life while opening new possibilities. While the CPUC’s regulations in California will make business a bit more expensive for the companies and a bit more annoying for the drivers, it doesn’t seem likely to, or intended to, cripple the technologies. A series of annoying—and expensive—legal battles will undoubtedly still haunt Uber and Lyft across America. But it’s hard to believe taxi interests will succeed in squashing such a useful, even if disrupting, technology.
Heath, reveling in the dark and gritty glamor of the traditional urban taxi driver, seems equally aware he’s an endangered species. He doesn’t love the thought, but he sees it coming. “I’ve seen my business fall about half [since the rise of Lyft and Uber], just since the new year. It’s crazy how fast it’s changing.” Next time he goes on vacation to Mexico, he thinks, “I might come back and it’s all gone. I’m fine with it.” To Heath, a culture of people “walking around staring at their iPhones bumping into each other” will be getting what it deserves. He’s probably right.
**Correction: An earlier version of this piece mistakenly implied that Lyft drivers could see specific donation information on specific passengers and make an active choice to ignore their pickup requests.