I was probably the first writer ever to do a non-business-y article about Lyft. Hell, I was probably one of the first writers to ever even take a Lyft. Back in the halcyon days of 2012, when the company was still technically called Zimride, I was at the press conference where they officially launched the Lyft brand and opened up their pink mustache rides to the public.
Back then, there were lots of companies with missing vowels launching some kind of “revolutionary” product or service. Most had free booze and food — which was usually why I showed up. However, unlike most of these little self-congratulatory rodeos for brands destined to fail, I walked out of this one thinking, “Holy shit … this is gonna change everything.”
I wrote about my experience for The Bold Italic: My friend Jen and I used Lyft all night to float around town dressed in funky clothes; we crashed fancy Google parties; and fell into some PG-rated group fondling. Of course, I went into more detail about what the service was, and interviewed a couple of my cabbie friends about their thoughts on the matter. That was the whole shebang. Highbrow journalism at its best. The story was pretty good, but I can’t seem to find it anywhere on the web these days.
At first, I was a big proponent of Lyft, Uber, and the rest of the gig economy. If you were in San Francisco before these services came on the scene, you’ll undoubtedly have some horror story about terrible cab service. I literally showed up over an hour late to my 30th birthday party because it was raining and all the cabs I called didn’t come.
It didn’t take long for me to realize though how very problematic the entire gig economy would ultimately be. The first tipoff was the name. Back when it all started, it was called the “sharing economy.” The only problem with that moniker was that — at least in my experience — sharing involves giving something to someone for free. So, I started calling it the “pimping economy.”
I mean, when someone else does all the work and takes all the risks and you make your living taking a chunk of their money just for facilitating the deal, that makes you a pimp. And honestly, fuck pimps.
Don’t get me wrong, all those companies made life easier. Suddenly we didn’t have to worry about showing up to important events late, or have cabbies refuse to let us pay with credit cards, or have them decline to give us rides because they didn’t want to head away from where all the action was.
And for people of color or folks with disabilities, it was monumental. I remember talking about Uber and Lyft with my friend Lateefah Simon a few years after they launched. Being Black and born legally blind, Lateefah had depended on mass transit and taxis for most of her life. This is what led her to become a member of the BART Board of Directors. One night while waiting for our rides to pick us up she told me that, before Lyft and Uber, it was often near impossible for her to get a cab — they wouldn’t stop because she was Black. These on-demand apps had changed her life. Many of my Black and Brown friends have shared similar stories.
But there was a hitch.
While the gig economy made things easier for consumers, it made them worse for workers. Over the years, wages have dropped significantly for drivers and delivery people. Uber has even been caught showing drivers lower fares than passengers to escape paying them a fair wage. Both my parents drove for Uber and Lyft for four or five years to supplement their incomes, and by the end, the amount they’d make for a ride was laughable. Plus, because all the work was contract work, none of it came with benefits, worker protections, or a guarantee of income for hours spent on the job. And that’s not even considering that the ultimate goal for these companies was to eventually replace their human workers with self-driving cars. In effect, millions of people who already are on the fringes of employment are helping big tech build a system that is banking on leaving them behind.
The problem with Silicon Valley’s mantra of “move fast and break things” is that government simply can’t keep pace with venture capitalist-backed tech companies. By the time legislators fully comprehend the impact they are having on society, they are already multibillion dollar businesses with all the power and influence such war chests afford. And suddenly these companies aren’t just shirking the laws with hopes of squeaking by, they are literally writing them. Ain’t capitalism a motherfucker?
As we saw in the 2020 election Uber, Lyft, Doordash, and others spent over $224 million to write and pass Prop. 22, one of the most regressive labor laws in generations. A big chunk of that money was spent fooling millions of riders and drivers into voting against their own interests. If you depend on an app to connect you to your work, and each time you open that app, it tells you to vote the way the boss says unless you want to lose out on money … well, how messed up is that? I couldn’t even believe it was legal.
Just a few weeks ago Prop. 22 was ruled unconstitutional, but not for the ridiculousness mentioned above. It was because the law was so egregiously written in the favor of the tech giants that Alameda County Superior Court Judge Frank Roesch said it “appears only to protect the economic interests of the network companies.” Of course, that verdict will surely be appealed.
While Prop. 22 may be the latest evil and offensive law passed in favor of multibillion dollar tech giants, it obviously wasn’t the first. Airbnb has been clashing with housing activists in the Bay and around the country since at least 2014, and at various times Uber and Lyft have been kicked out of cities like Austin, and hamstrung in New York.
So, a couple years ago, I stopped giving them my money as best I could. Now in San Francisco I use apps like Flywheel Taxi and YoTaxi when not walking or taking mass transit. These apps connect me to actual taxicab drivers, and unlike the days of old, I can now follow their progress and make sure they are actually going to show up.
When I travel, I try and find similar apps in the cities I go to. I’m not always successful and still sometimes have to rely on these gig apps to get around, even occasionally in SF if it’s late and I can’t get a cab, but I’m doing my best. At the end of the day, I’d rather spend my money where the worker gets the lion’s share instead of helping fund a parasitic company who lies to consumers, screws over workers, and writes hideous, self-serving laws.