21 SEP 2017: There’s a long-held belief in branding circles that you know you have truly arrived when your company’s brand name is adopted a verb or as a generic name. Over the years we’ve created verbs like “Fedex”, “Xerox” and “Hoover” while the likes of Kleenex, Cellophane, Aspirin, and Biro have become part of the language.

What’s changed of late however is how rapidly brand names can infuse themselves into the lingua franca. Two examples come from Apple and Uber: In just 10 years ‘iPhone’ has become a generic term for almost any brand of mobile phone, while a mere eight years after its founding “Ubering” is an accepted means of transportation.

While I cannot imagine a world without the iPhone, the emergence of the ‘sharing economy’ with Airbnb and Uber leading the way has turned the traditional hospitality and ground transportation world upside down. It has all happened so quickly that sometimes it’s hard to get your head around the numbers. For example, on any given night it’s already the norm for 11-year-old Airbnb to be hosting a million guests around the world. Last New Year’s Eve they came within a hair’s breadth of hitting two million - in one night!

The growth at Uber has been no less spectacular. It took the ride hailing upstart six years to complete a billion rides, which it achieved by Christmas 2015. Incredibly, it then took them only six more months to double that number - in July 2016, they hit their two billionth rider! Think about that: It means they were providing a global average of 5.5 million rides a day! That’s almost 4,000 a minute. Staggering numbers - especially when Uber doesn’t own any of the cars providing those rides.

I’ve been a frequent consumer of Uber’s services for years but it was only after chatting to one of their drivers on my last trip to London – he was a high school teacher - about how much he enjoyed meeting riders from all over the world, I decided to give it a try. I also figured that seeing the way the system works from the inside would give me a much better grasp on the so-called “Uber effect” - so why not give it a go?

The whole online sign-up process took about 15 minutes of emailing scanned paperwork and within 24 hours, after I cleared the document and background checks, I was ready to rumble.

So, the following day, with more than a degree of trepidation, I turned on my driver’s app and took to the road. Little did I realize it would be one of the most fascinating and fun things I have done in a very long time. Now, after more than a hundred rides spread over several months, here are a few of the key things I’ve learned about Uber:

• Uber has taken a lot of cars off the road. Numerous city-dwelling riders have told me how they used to own a car – or a second car - until they discovered it was more cost efficient to just call Uber.

• Parents will transport unaccompanied, relatively young kids to and from school by Uber - something they never did with a local cab company.

• Contrary to what those local cab companies would have the world believe, price is not the primary reasons Uber threatens their existence – it’s pickup reliability and much friendlier drivers.

• Many Uber drivers are also their own passenger – these are the ones that mitigate the cost of getting to their fulltime jobs by using an app function that gives them rides to a specified area – i.e. their office in the morning and their home in the evening.

• The affordability of Uber facilitates people working and/or living in locations devoid of public transport that would not have been viable without owning a car.

• And this one amazed me - after undergoing a surgical procedure, in lieu of “a family member” some hospitals and clinics will only allow patients to be driven home by Uber. Not just by taxi but specifically “by Uber”.

Along the way, I have also learned a lot about myself and people in general:

• I didn’t realize how guilty I was of ‘judging books by their covers’. Some riders, where on first sight I thought, “Do I really want this person in my car?” have turned out to be quite delightful. Other times when I thought, “Aha, this looks like ‘my kind of person’” they’ve been obnoxious boors.

• We all tend to live in our little social bubbles or ‘people like me’ comfort zones. Sharing the confines of your vehicle with total strangers of hugely diverse ethnic, socio-economic and cultural backgrounds is a fascinating learning experience.

• The propensity to tip and the wherewithal to do so often seem to be diametrically opposed. Kitchen workers have given me $10 tips for $5 rides while expense-accounted executive types will think nothing of (if they’re feeling generous) perhaps giving a $2 tip for a $120 ride.

I liken the Uber driving experience to fishing – you just never know who’s going to take the bait next. It can be a $5 ride to a donut shop with a non-stop texting 14-year-old, or a $105 ride to the airport with a chatty contract flight attendant on a Saudi prince’s private Boeing 787.

Or there was the pickup that phoned me seconds after I’d pulled up alongside him. As I looked right at him I heard him (simultaneously through the open window and over the phone) say, “Hi, how long before you get here?” It was only when I said, “I’m right beside you” that I saw the white cane and realized he was blind.

I’ve always enjoyed meeting people and I’ve always enjoyed driving. Uber combines both and, on a sunny day, can provide a welcome break for a few hours from sitting at a keyboard bashing out things like this. There’s also a book or a perhaps a sitcom script in my copious notes – more on those some other time!

Try it. It’s almost like a sport and as my mom used to say, “Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.”

Or was that Forrest Gump’s mom?

 

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David Tait

David Tait's insight and irrepressible humour give us an insider's take on the airlines and the industry in general. He doesn't pull his punches, and readers find his columns thoughtful, informative, amusing and infuriating – regardless, David's views on our industry are always original. 

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