Riding Sidecar

Riding Sidecar March 27, 2016

Since moving to San Francisco I have become a loyal fan of Uber. But Uber is pricy and one day I heard about a cheaper alternative called Sidecar, the “People’s Uber”. I decided I would try it out the next time I needed to go to the airport.

A few days later I have another trip and I decide to see if Sidecar can help me out. I download the Sidecar app and find it works the same way as Uber’s. I am set up and ready to go in seconds. I open the app and find that the closest Sidecar driver is 13 minutes away. That’s a little further than I am used to but fine. I have allowed a little extra time so I am not worried. I have to input my destination – that is different than Uber but not a problem. I type in that I am going to the airport.

I finish up my packing. I bring the bags to the door. My cell phone rings.

“Hello.” I said.

“Is this Jay?”

“Who’s this?”

“This is Mickey. I just got a call for a Sidecar”

“Oh yeah. That’s me,” I said.

“I can see here that you are going somewhere down in the South Bay.”

“Yeah. I am going to the airport.”

“That’s a long way.”

“Is that a problem?”

“No just wanted to make sure it was on the up and up.”

“Yup. Up and Up.”

“Glad to hear it, I will see you shortly.”

Mickey was as good as his word. In 5 minutes, a grey Honda Civic pulled up in front of the house. A young athletic fellow bounded out. He was wearing a grey t-shirt that said STATE in big letters.

“I am Mickey.” He said. “Here let me get your bags.”

*          *          *

Only a few days after I have my first Sidecar trip I received an email from a gentleman with the name Sunil Paul who said he needed my help. Turns out he is the headman of Sidecar. He reports:

Earlier this week Sidecar, along with Uber and Lyft, received a citation from the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) imposing fines of $20,000 and asserting that we are illegally operating a charter-party transportation carrier.  

When we launched Sidecar we imagined a world with transportation options that are more sustainable, more social, safer, and more affordable than today’s solutions.  Sidecar is not just a company, but part of a large movement to use smartphones to enable owners of assets to share and collaborate with others for greater efficiency. 

These technologies and ideas are new to government, so it’s no surprise that early reactions are to force us into a box that is convenient for regulators to understand. Sidecar will continue operations, and our community will continue to grow, but we need your help. 


I have given help to lots of less worthy causes and movements in my time so I am willing. When I get back to San Francisco I will have to see what I can do. But the part of the email that really grabs me is the sentence that says

Sidecar is not just a company, but part of a large movement to use smartphones to enable owners of assets to share and collaborate with others for greater efficiency

I do a little research on that idea – I literally paste the key words into Google – and in seconds I am learning about “collaborative consumption” which isn’t a social disease but a movement based on sharing. So I have a car, a bedroom, an asset that I don’t use all the time or I use it but I don’t use all of it when I do use it. You need a car or a bedroom or an asset, but you don’t need it all of the time or you don’t need to use all of it when you are using it. We are both stuck: I with my wasted possessions, destined for ill or inefficient use. You with your dilemma: either going without altogether or worse having to buy a possession that you don’t fully need or won’t fully use.

But this is a problem that has a solution. The Internet has provided the solution is so many ways already. In any industry – in every industry – where there is a market that is not efficient, where salespeople, brokers, agents, middlemen, ply their trade by knowledgeably connecting seller to buyer, lessor to lessee, owner to collector, in all those arenas of human endeavor the Internet is capable of interceding, of replacing the salesperson, the broker, the agent, the middleman with an app that puts together – efficiently, instantaneously, effortlessly – the parties seeking each other just like that. No wonder the Internet is the greatest destroyer of human wealth in history. For over twenty years we have watched as industry after industry has been eaten by the locusts of the Internet. Stock-brokering, real estate agenting, matchmaking. All eaten by locusts. Once it was machines that replaced jobs, now it is apps.

Looking back it seems as if it was just a wild unrestrained feast on the people that made their living in the middle of transactions, but as I read I realize that I have only seen the first stage of the drama. Collaborative consumption is what is coming next. Really it is no different than what has happened so far but now it’s so much more efficient. Now it is on smartphones, now it has gone mobile, now the transactions can be shorter, smaller, faster, even more casual. I am driving over the Golden Gate, I have three empty seats. That is an asset that is going to waste. I can use it, I can take advantage of it. To borrow the business idea, I can monetize it. I just need the app that connects riders with drivers for that route and time. I have a couch in my living room. I am not going to be sitting on it tomorrow night and for sure there is somebody that would love to kip there. I just need the app. This is the sharing economy. This is collaborating on consumption.

When I rode to the airport in Sidecar, I missed half of the story. I was focusing on me – the consumer – and mostly noticing how the commercial product was being delivered to me. What I didn’t see is the Mickey side of the equation. Mickey is just a guy with a car that isn’t being used efficiently. He is parking his Honda at his house or driving it half empty. Sidecar uses the app to connect the Mickey market –underuseful, underefficient, cars – and links them with the Jay market – driverless sods needing to go somewhere. Sidecar isn’t just a way to compete with taxis by using cheap labor; it is a way to use what is being wasted by Mickey.

Seen that way, the fight to save Sidecar is a moral fight. Who is it that wants to shut down Sidecar? The forces that feast and profit on inefficiency! The Man! The Middleman! The Suits! And in the grand American tradition, how do they protect their fortress? They use the Government! They use the Law, they use Regulation.

*          *          *

Mickey wrestled my bags into the trunk. I squeezed into the rear of the cleanish Honda.

“I am going to the airport,” I said, just to be clear.

“Got it.”

“How do you like Sidecar?”

“Love it. Really great. I am out of work you know and then I heard about Sidecar and I started driving.”

“Keep you busy?”

“Mornings are great. I get going about 6:30 am and then I am generally busy til noon. Afternoons are very slow but then the evenings are really busy though I don’t like the party people. And weekends are great all day.”

“Party people?”

“You know. Drunks. Coming home after a night of drinking. Don’t want them in my car.”

“Yeah. You ever get someone puking?”

“No and I don’t want to.”

“I rode in a cab the other day back on the east coast,” I said, “and they a had a $250 charge on the tariff for ‘vomit clean up’.”

“Gross. I just do the weekend days. They are busy all day.”

“Nice.”

“Yeah. It’s good. You are my longest.”

“Longest?”

“Pick up.”

“Oh”

“Sidecar is cool.” Mickey said, “They keep trying to say it is commercial service and shut it down.”

“Isn’t it a commercial service? I have to pay a fare, don’t I?”

“No, it’s just a recommended amount for a donation. You could pay more or less. There is a slider button on the screen when you get out of the car and you can raise it up or lower it. It is a donation. You see we are a donation-based arrangement. That way they can’t make any law apply to us.”

*          *          *

I do a little research on Sidecar and Uber and learn that in Washington D.C. just after Uber started service in that city, Ron Linton, the Chairman of the DC Taxicab Commission, booked Uber for a ride to the Mayflower Hotel. When the driver arrived at the hotel to drop Mr. Linton, two enforcement officers of the DCTC were waiting and they cited the driver for operating a taxi service without a license and they impounded his vehicle. Turns out the operation was a sting designed to shut down Uber in D.C. It took 6 months and a grass roots user campaign to get D.C. City Council to legalize Uber services.

*          *          *

I find a website of an organization called SPUR that writes quite entertainingly on the obstacles to collaborative consumption. In a piece titled “A Policy Agenda for A Sharing Economy” SPUR points out that:

For example, when the automobile debuted on American roads, it came into conflict with the horse, and early regulations tended to prioritize the horse. As Kenneth Jackson detailed in his book Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States, “On the theory that lumbering automobiles frightened horses and raised dust, many states followed British precedent and passed laws limiting self-propelled vehicles to four miles per hour and requiring that each be preceded by a man on foot carrying a red flag.”

Many other examples dot our economic history. Mandatory operators of automatic elevators. Toll takers on the highway where drivers streak by with EasyPass. On and On. The hidebound forces of the status quo. Those who want to regulate against improvement and change and efficiency, all for the preservation of fat profits for the moneybags in the middle, terrified of seeing their cash stream dwindling.

Who is sticking it to Sidecar? The taxi drivers. The limo operators. They are the ones whose oxen are being gored. But they are not alone. Don’t forget the Regulators of those oxen! They wield the regulatory apparatus that was created to … well, regulate, damnit! And if Sidecar was just going to use a stinking app to hook up Mickey’s world with Jay’s world, what would happen to permits and licenses and medallions and fees! You needed that stuff. You couldn’t just rely on an app. It wasn’t safe! It wasn’t reliable! How does Jay know that Mickey isn’t an axe murder? How does Jay know that he is going to get a cleanish car? With a big trunk? And a fair price? We have to protect the Jays from the Mickeys! No app can do that, thank you. Sure it might work once or twice. It might even seem really awesome, but when it goes wrong, there will be hell to pay. Jay will be sniveling and whining and finger-pointing cause he wasn’t being watched out for. Jay needs us to protect him from the Mickeys, even if Jay doesn’t know it. Jay needs us to regulate. We have to do it for Jay…

*          *          *

We reached the airport and Mickey pulled up to the US Air drop off. I got out of the car. I pulled out my iPhone. Sure enough the screen said in large letters “Recommended Donation $49”.

“Mickey,” I asked, “is the tip included, like on Uber?”

“Nah, it’s a recommended donation. You can raise it up for a tip if you want. It isn’t in the 25%”.

“What 25%?”

“That’s what they get.”

“Sidecar?”

“Sidecar.”

Mickey came over to my side to make sure I could find the slider on the screen.

‘Well,” I said. “let’s see. I pay Uber $65, how about I pay you $55? Would that be okay?”

“That would be great! Of course, I will give you a five.”

“Five what?”

“Stars.”

“Five stars?”

“Yeah. Of course.”

“You mean you rate the customers?”

“Oh yeah. You never know. Don’t want to drive around any crazies.”

“So true. So true.”

*          *          *

Truth is, I don’t want to think too much about the sharing economy. If you press the ideas to the conclusion you’d be soon be imagining how every scrap of your surplus inefficiency could be identified, inventoried, published, promoted, transferred, paid for and ultimately used by someone else. I had the unsettling visual of my first floor toilet being frequently flushed by drop–in crappers. My crap and their crap being harvested for compost. The compost planted in pots along the sidewalk. The sprouting vegetables collected by the City offsetting my tax bill. And my closet. All those jeans that hung there. The t-shirts. The shoes! What an opportunity for a Mickey like me to put those threads into use by some Jay with long legs, big feet, and a bad sense of style.

While I didn’t want to be spending my time thinking about how I could wring every little inefficiency out of my life, I was increasingly conscious that there were thousands – maybe tens of thousands – of smart young people in San Francisco (and, when I look on the web, actually all over the world) thinking of nothing else. They looked at me and they didn’t see a man driving himself where he needed to go; they saw a man in an automobile with an empty sidecar riding along next to him, just begging to be filled.

*          *          *

When I was coming of age we had our own collaborative consumption. I remember being dropped off at the Howard Johnson’s on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, just by the Valley Forge exit. My girl friend dropped me and we had a tearful goodbye as I took leave of her in the employee parking lot before walking to the long sloping runway that cars used to depart HoJo’s and pick up speed returning to the Turnpike.

I had a tan backpack – Boy Scout issue – on my shoulders and a copy of On the Road in the back pocket of my Levi’s. I was off an epic hitchhiking trip to San Francisco. I started from HoJo’s because it was too easy to get busted hitching at Turnpike entrances. If you hitched from rest stops you didn’t get hassled by the police and it was a great spot to get a nice long ride. No one stopped at a restaurant on the turnpike if they were close to their destination. And when the drivers left the rest stop, they were not impatiently beginning their journey, they were in the midst of it, at that point when a conversation with a fellow traveller would be a welcome distraction, not just another barrier to getting under way. Or anyway so I thought.

I realize how wrong I had it in those days. I should have realized that one Mickey after another was coming along the road, his car brimming with inefficiency, chocked full of wasteful consumption. There were X gallons of gas in those cars each divided by just one Mickey. They could have been divided by a Mickey and a Jay and when divided that way there would be twice as much! Literally. A doubling of capacity. A halving of consumption. A car that got in those days maybe 15 miles per people-gallon was now getting thirty when another people was added. In just the simple act of sticking out my thumb I was solving the energy crisis. And not just me. There were other Jays out there. If Mickey picked up three of them – and me – that was the same as 75 miles per people-gallon.

And imagine boosting that up a level. If you had four hitchhikers per every vehicle, you’d cut the country’s gas guzzlement by 80%. The Middle East would not be relevant. The country would be energy independent. You wouldn’t need solar, or hydo, or wind, or fracking. You’d just need a freaking thumb.

But for some reason, it did not work out that way. I hitchhiked my way back and forth across the country for three or four years but somewhere along the way, hitchhiking began to die. It wasn’t just me getting older and more cautious. It wasn’t just having more to lose. The country turned away from collaborative consumption. The Man! He was out there regulating. Arresting hitchhikers. Giving out citations. Checking your backpack’s content on the humiliating roadside. Hitchhiking was against the Law.

I never really understood it, though I did not question it. Of course hitchhiking was against the Law; so many things we wanted to do in those days were against the law, it was a given. But from this vantage point, many years later, it is obvious we missed the boat. There is no reason why hitchhiking should have been illegal. We could have changed the course of world events. We wouldn’t have had to fight wars over oil; we wouldn’t have had Operation Desert Storm; maybe we wouldn’t have had ISIS. We would have had abundant energy. It was there for the taking.

All we needed was a good app.

***

Riding Sidecar was originally published in December Magazine.