Some things are easier to quit than others. Texting and driving is something you should give up immediately. Eating out every night is worth curbing. Quitting smoking is far from easy. But the most difficult things to quit are life’s utilities. You can’t easily “quit” electricity or laundry. These are things that are inherent to everyday life, and often taken for granted. Finding alternatives requires a full-scale life change.
In a short span of time, ridesharing has become one of these life utilities. What was once a novel approach to getting from point A to B has become something upon which we increasingly depend. And now, in a climate where the politics of technology corporations suddenly matter, it’s become important to cast your ridesharing allegiance.
This isn’t the first time Uber has come under fire. Its drivers are reportedly treated poorly and, many believe, are just a human stopgap until the company can employ autonomous vehicles to take over. Users are no stranger to controversial surge pricing, and local governments have been subjected to its steamrolling tactics. Nearly two weeks ago, after Donald Trump signed an executive order temporarily banning all refugees and blocking travel from seven majority-Muslim countries, Uber’s response to an ensuing taxi cab protest — a misguided pause on surge pricing — was seemingly the final straw for consumers in search of higher ground. That higher ground, for many people, was Lyft.
Lyft, by comparison, has a less complicated reputation. Drivers generally praise the platform — its founder even rides around with one of them every New Year’s Eve. And in response to Trump’s travel ban, Lyft pledged to donate $1 million to the ACLU. But Lyft is also not perfect: As Kate Knibbs wrote last week, Lyft has also cozied up to Donald Trump’s administration and one of its major investors is Trump pal Peter Thiel.
It should come as no surprise that Silicon Valley cannot be expected to guide the moral universe, but the mass deletion of Uber in favor of Lyft is misguided — if users want to free themselves of ridesharing corporations connected or beholden to the Trump administration, then both Uber and Lyft ought to be hard-pressed and X-ed out from their home screens.
Ridesharing is a life-changing convenience; eliminating it completely, for many, feels impossible. This isn’t like asking someone to stop shopping at Walmart, because there are several other convenient options available across the country. By comparison, ridesharing is a newer consumer good and the options are fewer or far too niche. But that doesn’t mean innovators will stop trying.
Roman Pushkin, a web developer based in San Francisco, created LibreTaxi, an app that connects drivers to riders and lets them negotiate the price of a ride themselves; riders pay cash once the ride is complete. Pushkin didn’t create LibreTaxi as a response to the sudden consumer demand for a viable alternative — he actually developed it (and released it this past December) because he identified a need for a system in more remote locations. LibreTaxi is open source, so anyone can use its code and adapt it to their needs. After a tumultuous two weeks in ridesharing, it’s suddenly become incredibly popular.
“I see people on my Github account [where LibreTaxi’s code lives] cloning the source code and repository,” Pushkin says. “[The weekend of the Uber mass deletion], I saw more than 100 clones.”
That weekend, and for much of the week after, Pushkin was the top trending developer on Github.
“We’re not a direct competitor of Uber [or Lyft],” he says. “[LibreTaxi] has some limitations … but this app allows anyone to be a driver.”
The downside, of course, is there is no safety net provided by the platform. While Uber and Lyft have had their issues with background checks, they do exist in some capacity. That’s a major concession to make in order to use a third-party option, and Pushkin knows it. “I’m working on making it safer for everyone,” he says. “My next plan is to have a license plate photo check before a driver can take any orders.”
If you’re truly dedicated to removing Uber and Lyft but LibreTaxi makes you nervous, things become more difficult. “I mean, honestly, if we’re talking nationally available options, then it’s probably taxis,” says Harry Campbell, a sometimes Uber and Lyft driver who now runs a blog and network for drivers called The Rideshare Guy. Campbell says there are some niche options like Juno (only available in New York) and Wingz (which only services airport rides), but those in search of something available everywhere for general commuting needs may need to look into a bus pass.
There is some hope in apps like FlyWheel, which hails cabs in an Uber-like fashion, though prices are higher. The fact remains that Uber and Lyft own this market, and it will take an incredibly powerful disruptor to change that. “Uber and Lyft had the first-mover advantage and at this point, the challenge for these other companies is that Uber and Lyft have very good products — reliable, cheap, consumer-friendly,” says Campbell. “They disrupted a product that nobody liked.”
And now that the brands are entrenched in some controversy, consumers are left a little confused about the ethics of their ridesharing options. These corporations are eager to prove themselves morally active, but we’re increasingly growing wise to these attempts at winning us over.
But it isn’t consumers who will spur ethical change in the market — it’s the drivers. George Grama, founder and CEO of Mondo Taxi, says there is no Lyft or Uber alternative that could legitimately challenge the two mainstays in the industry. Grama’s app lets users order taxis on demand. He’s also spun off the technology used in the platform and licenses it to developers looking to create their own on-demand apps.
Many people are using his software to create their own ridesharing apps, but Grama doesn’t have high hopes for Uber alternatives. Except for one caveat.
“Unless … well, unless they could treat drivers completely different,” Grama says. “If they could exploit Uber’s vulnerabilities, then maybe that’s something. And one Uber has is the way they treat drivers and pursue autonomous cars.” Grama says that Uber drivers are starting to realize the company’s long-term plan is to replace them with driverless cars — and it’s not as if they’re being treated well in the interim. “I’ve seen startups like Juno in New York, and a few others I’ve worked with, who are looking at the driver’s side of things.”
Campbell agrees. “Juno really has the driver sentiment in mind, and that’s really the only thing you can really disrupt at this point. That’s what Juno is trying to capitalize on.”
There is some hope that drivers’ needs could force the industry’s hand. New alternatives could take Juno’s lead and create options that support workers to a greater extent, while also learning from the ease-of-use precedent Uber and Lyft have set. In the meantime, we’ll just need to wait and see. Or, you know, get that bus pass.