Your Private Driver: Any publicity is…

This is a returning and soon to be weekly column that offers news, insights, analysis, and user tips for rideshare platforms like Uber and Lyft. 

Writing about Uber’s woes has long been a way for tech blogs to get some easy, SEO-friendly clicks. Even with that in mind, the bad PR about Uber has hit nightmarish levels. Seriously, a Google search limited to just the first few months of this year gave me more headlines than I could process. There was the #DeleteUber campaign triggered by a suggestion that the company was in support of Trump’s immigration ban back in January, the video where CEO Travis Kalanick was confronted by an upset driver over the constantly falling rates, the blog that triggered an investigation into the company’s culture of ignoring sexual harassment, the issues with their self-driving cars being not very self-driving, the lawsuit from Google-owned Waymo, the criminal investigation over Greyball, the talking to from Apple CEO Tim Cook over unauthorized tracking of iPhone users, the resignation of President Jeff Jones after only about six months on the job…. did I miss anything? Probably, but that sentence was getting really long.

There’s little doubt that Uber is so far having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad year. There have been hundreds of blogs and opinion pieces predicting the company’s imminent demise. The death of Uber is all but inevitable, it seems.

Well, if Uber is going under soon, someone forgot to tell their users. Despite an estimated half million people requesting the cancellation of their Uber accounts, ridership appears to actually be growing. In fact, Uber says that it had its best week ever as far as ridership in late March, and growth is back to a record pace that has wiped out any negative effects these scandals might have had.

For its part, Uber’s chief competitor, Lyft, has benefited from Kalanick’s woes. The #DeleteUber campaign gave them a significant boost in downloads and an estimated five percent increase in market share, and I can tell you personally that there’s significantly more pink mustache business than there used to be. Lyft wasn’t able to keep up the momentum however, and Uber overtook them on the App Store once again a few days later.

So how is Uber not out of business yet?

One popular theory is that riders don’t value their morals nearly as much as they value their wallets. All Uber has to do is cut their rates a little bit, and the customers will flock back. Indeed, Uber offered flat-rate packages in several cities shortly after the NYC airport drama. The timing of this offer does correspond with the end of Uber’s small dip in popularity. Even now, Uber enjoys a small price advantage over Lyft, particularly in markets with up-front pricing; UberPool rates there are often less than half the cost of a normal uberX or Lyft ride.

Another theory is simply that Uber’s customers have short attention spans. All of that bad press hasn’t stuck in anyone’s mind long enough to make them even briefly pause at pulling out their smartphones and opening the Uber app. The service has become so ubiquitous in the lives of some people that they literally can’t figure out how to get from one place to another without it, an amazing feat for a service that’s been around for only three years in most of the U.S.

So the lesson, it seems, is that as long as Uber can continue to provide a service that’s so cheap and convenient that it’s more work to not use it, the negative PR storm means little to nothing. Besides, what are the alternatives? Walking? Taking the bus? Calling a *gasp* TAXI?! Please, we’re not that uncivilized.

Sekani Wright is an experienced Lyft driver working in the Los Angeles metropolitan area. If you have any questions you would like answered for this column, you can contact him at djsekani at gmail dot com, or on twitter and reddit at the username djsekani. Have a safe trip!

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