I had my first experience with Uber earlier this year. Living in a city with a wealth of public transportation options, plentiful cabs, and many establishments within walking distance of my apartment, I sort of dismissed Uber as a strange fad for the supremely lazy, not willing to hoof it a few blocks or to stand on a corner for three minutes hailing a cab, both excellent forms of urban exercise (the latter being excellent for your upper body, or at least one shoulder).
But then we had a whole group of fellas going to a ballgame, and dinner reservations after, and no one felt like 45 minutes on the train after three hours of beers, $8 a cup not deterring anyone. I looked into renting some kind of bus before someone suggested we Uber it. I asked if anyone had that app. Literally everyone did but me. Needless to say, I hadn’t realized how useful it could be in any environment: it has captured our mobile moment and our love of personalized convenience. Rather than just being a flash in the pan, it looks like Uber is here to stay, and is also a harbinger of the future of mobile technology.
However, you certainly didn’t need my little anecdote to tell you that the San Francisco-based company, which lets you order a car or town car from an app on your smart phone, was doing pretty well. It was the hottest story of the day, announcing a valuation of $17 billion, with finance raised at nearly 1.2 billion dollars. This makes it worth as much as Hertz and Avis combined.
To be blunt, this is nothing short of astonishing, and it understandably makes some people leery. Anytime a relative startup suddenly hits it big, it evokes memories of bubbles and massive over-valuation of whatever is hot, regardless of how bleak its long-term success really looks. More money has been raised to erect parapets for castles built on sand than anyone really cares to total.
So any negativity is pretty understandable. But as Mark Rogowsky argues in a sharp article over at Forbes, people are looking at Uber in the wrong way, starting with the Hertz/Avis comparison. He argues that those are different models (how often do you rent a car as compared to taking a cab?) and then takes it even further.
So long as you look at Uber as a taxi replacement, you’ll see it as something less than it’s already becoming in its early markets: A transportation app. In San Francisco, for years the taxi commission didn’t want to issue more medallions for additional cabs because there was ostensibly no real demand for them (As of last year, the city had 1,600 taxi medallions). Yet just 4 years after Uber’s launch, there are often well over 1,000 rideshare vehicles on the road during peak times.
The Long-Term Lure of Immediate Gratification
I think Rogowsky is absolutely correct. Uber is more than just a cool new way to get around. It is already becoming part of the fabric of modern urban living. You don’t have to leave to grab a cab, hoping one is coming; nor do you have to call a taxi service who will try to match you with a driver if one happens to be around. I never found either of those particularly burdensome, but Uber makes it that much easier.
And it is more than just immediate gratification: it makes it personal and gives you the sense of control. Control is really the heart of the mobile tech revolution. We’ve talked before about the numbers behind mobile’s dominance, and how it is ready to swallow the world, and that is the psychology behind it.
So in the end it isn’t about immediate gratification, or at least not just about that. It is being able to take some of the wild unpredictability out of life. People want surprises, but in a strange way they want to be able to control when those will happen, and what kind of surprises they will be. Standing at a wind-swept and light-broken intersection as night creeps to a bleak pre-dawn is very few people’s idea of the good kind of surprise.
So Uber, or a similar service that offers even better service, is here to stay. To me, that is kind of hard to imagine at this point. Uber has become the go-to, a catch-phrase, its own verb. If its presence in our language isn’t as ubiquitous as Facebook or Google, it is only because it is just getting started. It is obviously more limited than those two, and I wouldn’t argue it will be as big, but in terms of the people it is trying to reach- city-dwellers- it has supremacy (the one fearful thing for the model is that if Google succeeds with self-driving cars, they can become an Uber without the driver).
But even if something comes along that is better, the dam has broken. Transportation has become another thing we control with our fingertips and at our leisure. Whether we call up a human driver or depend entirely on a robot barely matters to the consumer. It’s all automatic now.