When, in October of last year, Uber announced that its cheaper-than-a-taxi UberX service was finally available in Philadelphia, most of us were delighted. In addition to being significantly less expensive than Philly’s cabs, UberX was also significantly better.
Of course, that wasn’t necessarily a difficult feat. Many Philadelphians had become fed up with the city’s cabs, the worst of which were dirty and smelly and manned by angry drivers who would flip out if you tried to do the unthinkable: Pay your fare with a credit card.
But while the bar wasn’t exactly set high, UberX jumped way, way over it. The drivers were courteous. The cars were well-maintained and clean late models — and sometimes brand new. And it all worked quite simply: You’d request a ride and get an ETA from a driver whose name and photo you were given, the friendly driver would arrive in due course, and you’d be chauffeured to your destination without incident.
Oh, sometimes the nascent UberX drivers would need a bit of directional help — and, let’s be honest, it’s ludicrous that a “professional” driver wouldn’t know where South Street is or that Girard is north of Market Street, not south… plus, it’s also bizarre that someone equipped with a GPS app would need directions — but we were able to get over this point, because, otherwise, UberX was just so damn good.
But less than a year later, everything has changed.
“UberX is such a crapshoot,” concurs my colleague Dan McQuade, who says he takes UberX seven to 10 times a month. “You either get a professional driver who knows what he’s doing or Just a Dude Driving a Pontiac.” (And I would say Just a Dude Driving a Pontiac Badly would be more accurate.)
Well, I take UberX as much as four times as often as Dan — short trips, long trips, in-between trips — as I have consistently since its debut, and I can tell you that, unlike a crapshoot, the odds are now decidedly and significantly against you.
Whereas it used to be the case that you were more likely to get that professional driver who knows what he’s doing — I’d put the odds at 5:1 — now it’s more like 5:1 in favor of you having a bad trip… if you get a trip at all.
Not long ago, I requested a ride from a restaurant in Upper Darby. I didn’t input my destination — Uber doesn’t require you to do this — and after my driver was taking forever to show up, I called him to find out what was up. He rudely demanded to know where I was going and said he wasn’t moving until I told him (something he could have just politely requested immediately after I requested the ride). All this is on par with the classic cab driver move of refusing to take you to where you want to go. And being rude.
In another instance, I was near quiet Sixth and Bainbridge fairly late at night when I needed a lift. A driver accepted, and I waited and waited and waited and waited for him. I could see that his car was just sitting down near the always-busy intersection of Ninth and Passyunk (Pat’s and Geno’s), so I called him. He, again rudely, told me to come down there if I wanted a ride. I said no. And he cancelled the ride.
Then there was the time that a driver picked me up in the afternoon — 10 minutes late — and proceeded to give me one of the scariest rides of my life. I told her to make a left at the next light, and she got into the right-hand lane and made the left turn from there… on a major roadway. Later, she came to a dead stop in the middle of a street for no apparent reason (there was no light, stop sign, crossing pedestrian, or vehicle in front of her). And then she made a left at a light right in front of oncoming traffic that clearly had the right of way.
But my favorite awful UberX story comes from just a few days ago. The driver picked me up in a dirty, beat up car, which was making loud noises. “Oh, don’t worry about the noise,” she told me. “I have a broken strut and a messed up engine mount.”
I asked her how long she had been driving for UberX. “Three days,” she laughed. “But I don’t really give a shit about it. I just wanted to see what UberX is all about.” Meanwhile, throughout the ride, she alternated between texting and using the Uber app on her handheld cellphone and eating an ice cream sundae with a spoon. Fortunately, she never tried to text while shoving the spoon into her mouth, or we might have had a real problem.
We tried to get Uber to give up complaint data on its UberX service in Philadelphia, but the $50 billion company refused, saying that the information is “proprietary.”
And while the Philadelphia Parking Authority rules over Philadelphia’s cabs and handles complaints about them, it effectively has no authority over UberX, which operates illegally in Philadelphia and seemingly with impunity, save for the occasional impoundment. So we certainly couldn’t get any complaint information about UberX from them.
But a PPA official we spoke to about the UberX situation in Philadelphia did offer a possible explanation for why UberX has gotten so damn bad. “Who do you think many of these new drivers are?” he said. “Philly cab drivers.”
Makes sense. Meanwhile, we’re pretty sure that UberX’s newfound awfulness won’t make the service dramatically less popular. After all, the credit card-based app is still more convenient than summoning a cab (the Philly cab app pales in comparison). And UberX is still cheap as hell.
So, just like a 2 a.m. double-stuffed burrito from Taco Bell, you know you shouldn’t do it — but you will anyway. You might just regret it later.
Follow @VictorFiorillo on Twitter.