Image: Shaye Anderson

Uber's Conscientious Objectors

Meet the people who, for one reason or another, refuse to use the taxi app.

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May 23 2016, 3:00pm

Image: Shaye Anderson

One Saturday night after staying out too late in the West Village's seedy bars, a close friend asked me to share an Uber with her back to Brooklyn.

A pit developed in my stomach. I couldn't untangle what exactly about the app made me uncomfortable, but I felt guilty about taking an Uber. There's the cost, for one thing. The app seems like a luxury in Manhattan, where taxis are plentiful and the subway runs all night. But that wasn't it. I just had a feeling that Uber, the company, was bad.

"Let's just get a cab," I said.

For a certain sect of mostly young and wealthy Americans, the allure of Uber is hard to pass up. Once you've connected your credit card to the app, it's mindlessly easy to summon a car to take you wherever you want to go.

But for some people, the act of patronizing Uber is too fraught to take lightly.

Matt Buck, a tech entrepreneur based in Austin, where both Uber and Lyft recently stopped operating due to a dispute with the city, never permitted himself to use Uber in his hometown.

"There seems to be a lot of blind trust in new apps that make something in our lives a little easier."

"Learning about CEO Travis Kalanick's fascination with Ayn Rand was enough to turn me off of Uber," he explained to me in an email.

I asked if his strict avoidance of Uber caused any social friction; he said it didn't, because his friends don't use the app, either. "Most folks I encounter already consider Uber to be a pretty slimy company," he said.

He admitted he does occasionally break his abstinence while traveling.

For some of the people I spoke to, Uber merely epitomized greater concerns that the sharing economy or digital technology in general present.

"Really it's all about the bigger injustice of this entire system," said Heather Thompson, a 27-year-old English professor in New Jersey. "Uber just scares me because it's so popular, but people don't seem to realize how messed up the whole business model is. It's just working towards further class stratification."

"I have a few opinions about the moral status of Uber, mainly that it's the apotheosis of the American concept of capitalism within a weak-willed, complicit regulatory apparatus," said Alex Kemmler, 31.

Like many Chicago residents, Kemmler started using the service because it was sometimes more convenient than getting a taxi. But he started to feel uncomfortable with how the company was treating its drivers, especially after he saw an article shared on Facebook that explained how Uber reportedly discourages tipping.

Following a $100 million dollar lawsuit in April, drivers will now be able to put small signs in their cars stating that "tips are not included, they are not required, but they would be appreciated," although Uber told me that its official stance on tipping has not changed—tips are not included in the fare, and riders "not obligated" to pay one in cash.

"I find Uber's treatment of its 'contractors' more than a little suspect," he said. "I frequently say that Uber (along with Amazon) only employ humans as prototypes for the robots that are in development to replace them."

New York City museum worker Robin Carol, 27, is as suspicious of other apps as she is of Uber.

"I've never used Uber or any ridesharing apps on my phone," she said. "I'm a bit stubborn and skeptical about the security of my information, so I also don't use Venmo, Seamless, Mint, or really any app that links to my credit card."

"Even though technology has the potential to solve so many problems, it's also evolving quickly and we sometimes don't think about the consequences," she continued. "There seems to be a lot of blind trust in new apps that make something in our lives a little easier."

Image: Shaye Anderson

Several people who practice Uber abstinence also pointed out that in some circumstances, the app may pull resources away from already struggling public transportation systems.

"There's this idea that transit will eventually separate into these 'private' and 'public' tiers—again, creating more options for those who can pay more and leaving everyone else with a broken system," Gizmodo Urbanism editor and Los Angeles resident Alissa Walker said.

If there is a winner in this scenario, it's Lyft. Many people I spoke to said spending their dollars with the other San Francisco-based ride-hailing app just sat a little better with their consciousness.

San Francisco resident Emily Peters switched to Lyft after her Uber account was hacked. "It was surreal to get the message saying 'your ride is here' and then to watch the car putt around a foreign city without me," she said.

An Uber representative just told her to cancel her credit cards and change her password, which felt brusque. She's used Lyft ever since.

"The drivers are always friendly," she told me, and "The other riders on Lyft Line make for excellent networking and conversation. It's a company that I feel much better endorsing."

"I feel very comfortable taking Lyft," said Chris Orris, 26, who said he tried out both apps for a while when he first moved to San Francisco.

He started asking his Lyft drivers, who typically also drive for Uber, which company was better.

"Every single one, with one exception, confirmed that Lyft gave much better commissions and was easier to deal with in general." Lyft drivers are also nicer, he said.

Orris is now a Lyft loyalist. "In fact their app is pretty awful compared to Uber's and I've been late to things over and over again because of crappy time estimations and directions," he said. "But despite that and the extra cost, I choose Lyft anyway."

Uber also has an almost Trumpian reputation with some riders when it comes to the subject of women.

Uber abstainers cited a BuzzFeed report that said the company may have been misrepresenting the number of sexual assaults that had been perpetrated by Uber drivers and riders, as well as the sexist remarks Kalanick made in in his contentious GQ profile from 2014.

Uber has a "horrific track record of suppressing violence against women in Uber cars," Hillary Hafke, 24, who lives in Palo Alto, explained to me. "I'm a former college activist and I don't use Uber because they haven't made violence against women a priority."

"The misogyny runs as deep at Uber as at most of the startups in SF," 46 year-old native San Francisco resident Brooke Biggs told me.

Others recalled Uber's fling with using its tracking capabilities to keep tabs on journalists, including the time an Uber manager used the company's tracking software to allegedly follow a reporter in 2014 and the time BuzzFeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith heard an executive say that the ridesharing behemoth was willing to spend a million dollars to pry into the personal lives of reporters.

If there is a winner in this scenario, it's Lyft

"The journalist stalking story was not something we should ever hear from an American company," Dr. Monya De, a journalist and medical doctor in Los Angeles told me.

But for some, the reason for not using Uber has little to do with labor relations, human rights, or the company's ideology.

"I once threw up in an Uber," said a male 24-year-old Washington, DC resident, who asked to be anonymous, "and they charged me a hundred bucks, so fuck that company."

Uber Earth is Motherboard's exploration of the ways Uber has already changed the world and how it stands to do so in the future. Follow along here.