Illustration by Kjell Reigstad
Longreads Members support this service and receive exclusive stories from the best publishers and writers in the world. Join us to receive our latest Member Pick—it’s a new story from journalist Nancy Scola, published in Next City’s Forefront magazine, about the rise of Uber. You can read a free excerpt below.
For more from Next City, you can check out their site or subscribe here. For a limited time, Next City is offering the Longreads community a 20 percent discount on a one-year subscription. Enter the offer code: LONGREADS (case sensitive) for your discount at nextcity.org/subscribe.
Travis Kalanick, the 36-year-old CEO of the ride-on-demand company Uber, calls it the “palm to forehead” moment: That instant when you understand for yourself why a simple car hailing app has both captured people’s imaginations and churned up a queasy feeling in the stomachs of taxi industry power players. Here’s mine.
It was a rainy spring Friday in San Francisco, before five o’clock in the morning. Needing to catch a flight home to New York City, I’d asked my host the night before about the best way to get to SFO from Japantown. “Just go downstairs and Uber,” she’d said. Groggily I made my way to the cold and lonely lobby. Once there, I pressed a few buttons on the Uber app on my iPhone. Almost instantaneously, one of the tiny black car avatars on the live digital map on my phone screen swung around and started heading my way. I could hear it, even. A splashing sound.
Mesmerized, it took me a few beats to realize that it wasn’t the app making noise. It was my car itself, tracking through real puddles as I tracked it on screen. Before I knew it, Waqar, my driver, slid into view. I knew his name because Uber had texted it to me while I’d waited. Later, the company would email me the data on my trip. It had taken 19 minutes and 43 seconds. We had traveled precisely 14.35 miles. It had cost me $54.04, charged to the credit card whose details I’d inputted when I download the app months earlier in curiosity. But it was when said goodbye to Waqar and hopped out of the car at the terminal that I realized how deeply I had, in the past, hated taking a cab or black car to go anywhere. All that hailing or giving my address, giving directions, fumbling for money, calculating and recalculating the tip. Technology had taken care of all of it.
For less than 20 minutes, I’d had almost nothing to worry about. What else was I simply putting up with in life? What other broken systems could be fixed?
I’m hardly the first one to put my hand to my head and contemplate the universe upon taking Uber for the first time. The San Francisco-based company launched 4.5 years ago, introducing a select group to the patent-pending technology that allowed me to press the Uber button and experience the magic of a driver that seems to pop out of the ether. It is already up and running in 18 countries and counting around the globe. This summer, Google Ventures poured some $258 million into Uber, the most it had ever invested in a company.
But that explosive growth hasn’t come without friction. Americans have been hiring driven cars for more than a century. Laws have accumulated governing that exchange. But those laws never contemplated an Uber. And so the battle is on, all across the country, to determine whether Uber will remake the transportation market or whether the transportation market will remake Uber first. There’s no better place to understand that fight than where regulations are both business and sport: Washington, D.C.