As a Gen-Xer who still shuns the smartphone and has a hard time believing Kurt Cobain has been dead for going on 20 years now, I am nowhere near tech-savvy, cool or forward-thinking enough to have ever used the ride-sharing services Uber and Lyft.
But it’s reassuring to know that someone as young and cool as tech-industry-employed Ald. Scott Resnick, 27, agrees with my crotchety, old man’s take on their business model.
“They seem very similar to taxis to me,” he said.
Now, the city needs to find a way to make them legal — not for the companies’ sake, but for Madison’s.
For others whose idea of everyday, motorized transit pretty much begins and ends with the family minivan, Uber, Lyft and similar companies basically apply 21st century information technology to a 20th century industry.
With the Uber smartphone app, for instance, you get a map showing where all the Uber cars in your immediate area are at that moment. Tap the screen to request a car and the company sends you a description of the vehicle and a photo of its driver, as well as an estimated time of arrival.
From there, use the map to follow your car as it makes its way to you. The rates are set and payment automatically drawn from your credit card. No tips are necessary; no cash need change hands.
Later, you are required to rate your experience for the benefit of future users, who will have a collection of reviews of each specific driver and vehicle to draw from.
For now, Uber and Lyft are operating free to Madison customers as part of a promotional push — but also because collecting fares would make them illegal under the city’s taxi ordinance.
Among other things, these new kinds of car services don’t always operate 24 hours a day, don’t always use marked cars and sometimes employ “surge,” pricing, in which the prices for a ride go up during busy times of the day, Resnick said.
The only other types of public passenger vehicles the city allows are pedicabs, “on-demand horse-drawn carriages and low-speed vehicles for hire,” according to Keith Pollock of the city’s Traffic Engineering Division.
There’s also nothing in state law regulating services like Uber and Lyft, according to the Division of Motor Vehicle’s chief of motor carrier services, Paul Bernander.
Resnick said the Transit and Parking Commission is creating a subcommittee to study legalizing Uber and Lyft. It’s important that the service be safe and that the city treat them equitably with traditional taxis, he said.
One of my much younger, much cooler siblings told me she uses Uber from one to five times a week in Chicago where she lives, and has also used it in New York City and San Francisco.
The vehicles are clean, the drivers friendly and the service more reliable than traditional cabs, she said, and not all that much more expensive.
Uber is part of the “smartphone culture,” she said, and “tons of 20- and 30-year-old professionals” use it.
And therein lies the point.
In the world of the hip, young and smart, traditional cab service alone doesn’t cut it.
Uber and Lyft are just two more steps down the road to that world Madison so desperately wants to join.