U is for Uber: The app that changed the way we travel, work, eat – and judge each other

The 21st letter in the New Statesman’s A-Z of the decade.

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“Shall we just get an Uber Pool?”

Last decade, if your wasted friend turned to you at 3am and asked you this, you’d have assumed they were hankering after some kind of fancy late-night swimming experience. Now it’s a standard way to travel.

Uber was technically founded in 2009 as UberCab by tech bros Garrett Camp and Travis Kalanick. They wanted a cheaper way to use cabs after Camp and his pals spent $800 hiring a private driver on New Year’s Eve. But the app we know today, which provides a car-hailing service straight from your smartphone, only officially launched in 2011 in (where else?) San Francisco.

Far cheaper than taxis and minicabs, Uber transformed the way people travel in more than 700 cities across the world.

As well as the price, its ease appealed to a younger generation that had grown up on their phones and in a world of instant gratification. Uber is linked to your card, so there’s no need for the usual late-night dash for cash; you only have to wait minutes for the car to arrive; and you don’t even speak to a real human being to order one. For bonus capitalist dystopian points, you rate your driver and they rate you as a passenger after each trip (a concept taken to its nightmarish conclusion in a 2016 episode of scifi series Black Mirror called “Nosedive”).

Suddenly, the idea of a cab home didn’t seem such an extravagance. Taking an Uber (or sharing one with other passengers using Uber Pool) became a cultural cornerstone of urban millennial life. It’s referenced in HBO’s Girls (protagonist Hannah Horvath, mid-hitchhiking disaster in a 2016 episode, laments that she was kicked off the app for “low ratings”); in the first scene of 2015 Netflix series Master of None as attempted chivalry after a contraception failure (“There’s an UberBLACK that’s, like, 15 minutes away. Should I just uberX?... I just didn’t want you to think I was being stingy with the Ubers”); and a baffling number of times in another Netflix drama about lost US youths, Love, from 2016.

Yet the seductively modern and simple app disguises the fact that, when you use Uber in places where it is poorly regulated, you are simply stepping into a stranger’s car. The company insists it has checks and safety measures in place, but these have come repeatedly under question. From February 2016 to February 2017, there was nearly one attack a week by an Uber driver in London. In the US, more than 3,000 sexual assaults during Uber trips were reported in 2018, including 229 rapes.

In London, Uber is appealing the loss of its licence, which was first threatened with removal by Transport for London in 2017 due to “lack of corporate responsibility” over driver background checks and other safety concerns. Its licence was not renewed in 2019 amid continued concern about safety. For years, London’s black cab drivers – feeling threatened by their new competitor – have tried to challenge Uber’s use in the city, and their protests have brought traffic to a standstill.

Uber has also changed the way people work. Its drivers are not treated as employees but self-employed independent contractors, therefore losing out on workers’ rights that members of staff who work, say, at Uber’s head office are entitled to. In the UK, this is the basis of an extended legal battle, and also a symbol of how the gig economy can trap people in precarious work behind the veneer of flexibility.

Couriers for Deliveroo, a company like Uber’s food delivery service UberEATS, lost their fight last year to be counted as workers rather than self-employed. These services, which bike restaurant meals to your door, are also said to have contributed to the “casual dining crunch” – the decline of chain restaurants in Britain’s already beleaguered high streets and town centres. The rise of “dark” or “ghost” kitchens in carparks and industrial estates that churn out meals-for-delivery as cheaply and efficiently as possible, under the name of brands and restaurants, have also drawn scrutiny for exploitation of workers.

Waiting just three minutes for an escape from the rain and easy route home may feel like ease – but the gig economy and its under-regulated services are making many lives and livelihoods a lot more complicated.

> This article is part of our A-Z of the 2010s.

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

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